Due to recent changes in relations between Cuba and the United States, many books have been published about the island nation, but few have centered on its capital with the kaleidoscopic focus of award-winning author Mark Kurlansky’s Havana, A Subtropical Delirium. In accessible prose worthy of the elegant metropolis itself, Kurlansky, a longtime Caribbean correspondent, profiles Cuban music, literature, food and, of course, baseball.
Kurlansky uses literary references to add color and context to his own experiences in Havana. In his prologue he imagines the city in black and white, its shadowed doorways and narrow streets (built to provide shade from the relentless tropical sun) the perfect setting for film noir or a Graham Greene novel. Many Americans have observed that the sea off Havana can appear violet at dawn; Hemingway called it “purple.” But to John Muir, visiting in 1868, Havana was a yellow city, and Anthony Trollope agreed, christening it a “dingy yellow town.” The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote, “Havana has the yellow of Cadiz, the pink of Seville turning carmine and the green of Granada, with the slight phosphorescence of a fish.”
According to Kurlansky, the culture of Havana has always been in flux, subject to shifting perspectives. “Change,” he writes, “is one of the fundamental conditions here.” He describes a fascinating history of upheaval, beginning with the harrowing 1511 Spanish conquest and the infamous legend of the fearless Taino leader Hatuey who chose death over conversion, stating: “If Christians go to heaven, I do not want to go.”
Kurlansky uses that story and many other anecdotes to illustrate a unique brand of Habanero humor. While his book moves effortlessly from the Spanish War of Independence to the Revolution, he maintains a focus on the current culture of Havana, explaining certain quirks and trends the traveler might encounter as fundamental characteristics of the Habanero identity.
Many of the elements that inform the culture of the city can be traced to its turbulent past. Kurlansky follows the lasting influences of Spanish, Taino and African cultures through language, religion, physique and food. He shows a strong affinity for Cuban cuisine in particular, going so far as to copy down favorite recipes for the benefit of the reader.
Beneath all the changes and shifting cultures, Kurlansky finds something that endures: the spirit of the city itself, which is passionate, colorful, ever in motion, elegant and enduring beyond decay. Change has been the city’s story, and more changes may be on the violet horizon, but, Kurlansky writes, “the things that make Havana Havana, the delirious, crumbling metropolis of black and white despite its faded tropical colors, seem certain to endure.”