A sensitive fish-out-of-water narrative from a visitor to the dictatorship that history nearly forgot.
The author’s husband Nick, energy consultant for a multinational corporation, was posted to Havana in the mid-1990s for four years. Their comparative wealth and status as foreigners secured for the couple and their two children an enormous house with a staff of seven. Tattlin kept a journal of their Cuban experiences, which ranged from sunny to harrowing. She reconfigures this journal into a substantial narrative that portrays the fundamental clash between Castro’s desiccated “triumphant revolution” and the powerful lure of US-influenced multinational consumerism. Because their 40-foot container of household goods takes months to arrive, the family must contend with the diplomatic supermarket’s chronic shortages. Through Nick’s business dealings, they play host to a wide variety of Cubans, finding that communist party officials tend to eat and steal the most, while ordinary citizens resort to a baroque barter system merely to survive. This process is complicated by the Castro regime’s fluctuating stance on economic initiatives; for example, Tattlin’s finest dining occurs in paladares, semi-legal restaurants in private homes that epitomize the rift between Cubans dependent on meager state wages and those who provide services to foreigners. The author is happiest when meeting Cuba’s youthful artists, or traveling in remote regions less affected by the nascent tourist industry (“sex tourism” in particular has begun to exert a corrosive influence). Throughout, she’s attuned to the surreal, mock-1950s domestic atmosphere and the way that Cuba’s prickly international relations seem to revolve around not hurting the regime’s feelings (obviously excepting the American embargo, subject of much internal debate). Tattlin avoids the journal format’s inherent solipsism, leaving even her often chilly marital relationship unexamined, and uses the form as a generous lens upon the Cuban people, convincing the reader that after four decades under Castro they deserve an opportunity for self-determination.
Deft evocations of the island’s sensual promise and oppressive reality.