Cuban Noir with a Dash of Fever Dream

In ‘Havana Libre,’ Robert Arellano returns to Cuba’s volatile history, and the character caught in the crossfire

Robert Arellano is a man of many realms. He has been a pioneer of digital media and its relation to literature, creating the internet’s first hypertext novel, Sunshine ’69 in 1996. More recently, he founded the Center for Emerging Media and Digital Arts at Southern Oregon University. He has played guitar with a number of musicians and bands including Bonnie “Prince” Billy aka Will Oldham, and collaborated on a graphic novel with acclaimed artist William Schaff.

Despite this diverse resume and achievements, where Arellano has found most acclaim is with his traditional novels, particularly the Cuban noir, Havana Lunar, which was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2010. Havana Lunar, is a stellar addition to the tradition of classic noir literature, following the likes of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and David Goodis. But Arellano mixes that with the fever dream transgressional prose of Chuck Palahniuk and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

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After a digression to New Mexico with Curse the Names, Arellano has returned to Cuba and his Havana Lunar protagonist, Manolo, with the standalone sequel, Havana Libre. The historical context and modern political landscape provide a heavier backdrop this time around. A series of bombings that took place in Havana in 1997 are at the center of Libre. The struggle with terroristic violence, all too real in the twenty-first century, is paired with the cultural struggle for Cuban-Americans and their relationship with political discord between the two countries. All this to say, there is a fresh vitality to Arellano’s sequel.

Ryan Bradley: You have said that when you first wrote Havana Lunar you weren’t setting out to write a mystery novel, rather you were working from pieces of stories you had sort of collected over the years. When you came back to Lunar’s setting and your protagonist, Manolo, did you have a clearer idea of your intentions for Havana Libre?

Robert Arellano: That’s right about the mystery coming late with Havana Lunar, but when I set out to write another novel around the same character, it felt natural that Manolo would need to face another criminal predicament. About 100 pages into Havana Libre, I still didn’t have that predicament, particularly because the exact year wasn’t yet clear to me. Although, I knew it had to be at least two but no more than seven years since the events of the last book. The clincher came when I settled on the summer of 1997, and I said to myself, “Of course! The terrorist bombings.”

RB: The idea that all art is inherently political isn’t discussed as frequently in what is considered genre writing, but Havana Libre follows a long tradition of mysteries and thrillers against political backdrops. How much influence did the politics of Cuban-American relations, past and present, influence the story you wanted to tell?

RA: I might say I’d prefer to tell a U.S./Cuba story without a heavy political backdrop, but this would be a very Cuban hypocrisy. In Havana, you can’t escape the way politics (both socialist-domestic and embargo-international) influences everyone’s lives, every day. And in Miami’s Little Havana, there’s a handwritten sign on the wall of my favorite 50-cent coffee counter shops that reads “No political conversations here” — when of course politics is all anyone talks about.

I might say I’d prefer to tell a U.S./Cuba story without a heavy political backdrop, but this would be a very Cuban hypocrisy.

RB: Today, in 2018, there is a lot of talk about art and politics, how they intersect and how inherent it is. Whether we try to be political or not, we are changed by the world and events around us. There have been few times when that has more apparent than the current political climate. What can we learn about the world of today by creating art focused on the past?

RA: Good point! Cuba especially has an eerie track record of anticipating domestically what the rest of us experience globally. For instance, with the end of Soviet oil subsidies in the late 1980s, they hit peak oil [the hypothetical point in time when the production of oil reaches its maximum rate, after which production will gradually decline] about ten years earlier than other developing countries, and their agricultural sector adapted with organic farming in smaller operations. The “Special Period” they went through economically in the 1990s reminds me a lot of the current worldwide crisis in financial markets. In order to make it through this next decade, we’re all going to have to be as cunning as Cubans, and in the past 25 years of stories of their daily struggles, we can find lots of hints at how to make do with less.

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RB: The historical context behind the novel is fascinating, but writing around true events that impacted a country and a people in a very real way can be a large responsibility. Did you feel any pressure in writing your story while being faithful to the history behind it?

RA: It is a heavy burden, but I was there in the summer of 1997, and ten times across the quintessentially noir years between 1992 and 2001, what Fidel Castro called the Special Period. A very close Cuban friend of mine who didn’t leave until the early 2000s reads my work-in-progress and offers fact-checking and feedback. She tells me, “You might be the only Cuban-American who was there through so much of this trying to capture it in English.”

Noir is a darkness in the heart of the city where it’s possible to find a spark of human kindness.

RB: Noir seems to be an artistic passion for you. You have taught classes on noir literature and written variations on the genre, what is it about the aesthetic of noir that appeals to you as a storyteller?

RA: Noir is a darkness in the heart of the city where it’s possible to find a spark of human kindness in some unlikely places. There are times this can make for an irresistible story.

RB: You mention finding humanity in unlikely places, which ties into political history as well. Do you see that sort of hope in political relations with Cuba in 2018 and what does it mean for Cuban-American art and storytelling in the future?

RA: Regrettably, I don’t see much progress happening for restored relations, at least not in the next three years. A recent consequence of the current chilling in diplomacy: Last month, Alaska Air cancelled the once-daily (and only) West Coast flight to Havana, after just a year of operation. That same week, two Cuban artists, Nestor Siré and Yonlay Cabrera, were denied permission to enter the U.S. for a presentation at the New Museum in NYC. For now, it seems the best hope for Cubans and Americans to experience each others’ stories is in virtual reality.

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