Journeying through the streets, and history, of Cuba’s famed capital.
An award-winning writer on travel, food, and culture, Kurlansky (Paper: Paging Through History, 2016, etc.) was for 10 years the Chicago Tribune’s Caribbean correspondent. He draws on many visits to the island for a spirited portrait of Havana, “like no other city on earth,” a place of color, contradictions, and, for the author, enticing allure. “Havana, to be truthful, is a mess,” he writes. “The sidewalks are cracked and broken, as are most of the streets.” Walls are sun-bleached, some covered in “various molds, mildews,” and other tropical blights; wood is destroyed by termites. The city “looks like the remnants of an ancient civilization.” But despite troubled infrastructure, it throbs with life: music, dance, art, and food. Kurlansky chronicles the city’s roiling past, beginning in 1492 with Columbus’ landing, followed by Spanish conquest and the incursion of French pirates. Soon, Havana became “a huge slave-trading center” that generated enormous wealth. In fact, “slavery lasted longer in Cuba than anywhere in the Americas.” By 1869, the author reports, there were more than 763,000 whites, 363,000 slaves, and 239,000 “free coloreds” on the island. Slaves could buy their freedom, which led many enslaved women to prostitution. That legacy persisted: until the revolution in 1959, Havana was reputed for its “huge prostitute market.” “For many men,” writes Kurlansky, “a visit to a prostitute was one of the celebrated features of a trip to Havana, along with music, rum, and cigars.” American sugar interests developed the island to facilitate their own profits, bringing railroads and steamship service and selling off cheap land for the construction of villas for the rich minority. Besides focusing on economics and politics, Kurlansky evokes the African-inflected music that dominates the city and provides recipes for some quintessential Cuban dishes, such as the succulent stew known as ajiaco and for the Cuban version of the mojito.
An affectionate, richly detailed, brief biography of a unique city.