AMERICANS’ FASCINATION with the mystery and allure of an island that for years they couldn’t access has led them to mythologize Cuba’s history. Those myths of a land stuck in time are only reinforced as American tourists are now ferried about Havana in restored 1950s Buicks, Chevys, and Oldsmobiles, and sit in cafés sipping rum and smoking cigars, being entertained by musicians, romancing and being romanced by beautiful Cuban men and women. “Just like in the old days,” they might think, when Havana was America’s playground and tourists acted as if they owned the place.
In contrast to these comforting stereotypes, the characters in Dariel Suarez’s impressive debut novel, The Playwright’s House, represent the broad spectrum of people that make up present-day Cuban society. The novel shows a generation and a country with its own challenges and difficulties, but despite many hindrances, this Cuba, like the story’s main character, is still capable of evolving in its own time.
Suarez was born in Havana after the triumph of Castro’s Revolution. He is what we Cubans call a hijo de la Revolución, a son of the Revolution. Living under communist rule was all he knew until he immigrated to the United States with his family in 1997. He lived through one of the most difficult eras of Cuba’s revolutionary history — after the collapse of the USSR led to the disappearance of Soviet subsidies, which, coupled with the US embargo, precipitated a complete collapse of the Cuban economy. He also witnessed the irrepressible ability of Cubans to adapt, and even thrive, as a community, relying on each other to survive the tough times. Cubans are nothing if not resilient. When it comes to the realities and contradictions of contemporary Cuban society, Suarez knows what he’s talking about.
In The Playwright’s House, we meet Serguey, a prominent Cuban lawyer working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an enviable career that could conceivably lead to assignments abroad. When his father Felipe, a renowned theater director, is arrested for what are suspected to be political reasons, Serguey is forced to confront his loyalties. He is obliged to choose between career and family as he faces the overt despotism of the system that employs him.
Suarez brings Havana alive as he slows the narrative with extended passages that give us a panoramic view of a nation in transition, struggling as it attempts to thrive. The city emerges as its own protagonist, echoing the contradictions of the novel’s troubled characters. Serguey chooses “to see Havana for its beauty and enduring heartbeat […] lighthouses turned into museums; centuries-old churches and cathedrals. […] Old Havana’s narrow streets […] the ringing of bicycle bells.” Yet we also see a less romanticized version of Havana, with its “divoted roads,” and we’re told that Cuba is a “country kept alive and miraculously made vibrant by hopeless artists.” “In Cuba,” Suarez writes, “the music is so amped up, no one hears the screams.”
The novel brings to mind the trajectory of the Cuban Revolution, which began as a beacon of hope to most of Latin America. Cuba was the only country in the region that stood up to the United States and survived. As the story reveals, times have changed, and the old party rhetoric has grown stale, particularly among the younger generation, which is too far removed from the historic events of the Revolution to be inspired by it, as evidenced by the ongoing protests on the island.
Suarez does not attempt to provide answers or solutions to current conditions. Instead, he follows what Italo Calvino, in his essay “Lightness” (published in his 1988 collection Six Memos for the Next Millennium), calls “the categorical imperative of every young writer […] to represent his own time.” Suarez does not avoid a political stance: indeed, the actions and reactions of his characters are determined, to a significant extent, by their relationships with the communist system: those who work with or for the system abide by its rules and align with its core values. In Serguey’s case, he is blinded by the opportunities his position within the system affords him and remains apolitical lest he lose those privileges. Missing from the novel are characters who accept the opportunities the system provides but don’t necessarily adhere to its values.
Driven by its political undercurrents, the novel follows Serguey’s determined struggle to overcome his own and his country’s intractable dispositions and come to terms with what he must do. It is a burdensome task, deftly described by Suarez. Serguey’s struggle provides a weightiness to the fast-moving plot that defies Calvino’s notion of lightness. The narrative has a crispness, a rhythmic pace, by turns deliberate and frantic, much like life on the island, yet the story never loses its momentum. The Playwright’s House offers a portrait of contemporary life in Cuba through the eyes of someone who lived it. Serguey is nothing if not authentic; his views don’t deceive.
Near the end of the novel, Serguey walks into his family’s empty house and reminisces about when, as a child, he helped his father organize his home library. Showing him a copy of José Lezama Lima’s classic Cuban novel Paradiso, Felipe says, “Art always gets its tragedies and triumphs from real life. […] Don’t believe everything’s made up.” It is a timely comment since the plot of The Playwright’s House is not so improbable when one considers the San Isidro Movement and the protests currently playing out in Cuba, with contemporary artists and musicians leading calls for less censorship and more freedom of expression, prompting repressive measures by the state. If one wants to get a deeper understanding of the roots of these demonstrations, this novel will provide it.
In the end, as with Cuba itself, we are left to ponder Serguey’s uncertain future. I’d like to imagine that, unencumbered by fear and indecision, and with an undeniable vision of who he is, Serguey’s path forward will become clearer and the obstacles he faces less troublesome.
A review by Jesús Francisco Sierra for The Los Angeles Review of Books. AMERICANS’ FASCINATION with the mystery and allure of an island that for years they couldn’t access has led them to mythologize Cuba’s history. Those myths of a land stuck in time are only reinforced as American tourists are now ferried about Havana