Havana Year Zero

At one point the narrator of Karla Suaerz’s Havana Year Zero (translated by Christina MacSweeney) says she feels “pretty confused… back in black and white, back in a movie with the plot changing before my eyes,” and, at times, the novel feels like an old-fashioned screwball comedy as the complexity of its relationships and misunderstandings unravels. Indeed, it begins with a McGuffin, a document which supposedly proves that an Italian, Antonio Meucci, invented the telephone in Cuba years before Alexander Graham Bell:

“The telephone, invented in this city where telephones hardly ever work.”

The narrator, a mathematician – who gives her name as Julia after the French mathematician Gaston Julia – first hears of Meucci from her ex-lecturer (and ex-lover) Euclid (also not his real name – the decision to ‘cover-up’ the characters’ identities a clever ploy to make them feel more ‘real’). Euclid claims he wants to find the document as a matter of national pride, at a time when Cuba is suffering after the fall of the Berlin wall:

“Well, it wasn’t the only thing to collapse that year; we were buried in the rubble. Cuba was dependent on aid from the Soviet Bloc, so the economy did a nosedive, taking everything down with it.”

Julia quickly becomes wrapped up in his plans: unhappy in her job and with little else in her life, the search gives her a much-needed purpose:

“An original scientific document. That was certainly something to hang onto, the lever capable of moving our small world, as Archimedes would put it.”

From then on, each character Julia meets reveals a connection to the document: Angel, who becomes her lover, is attempting to recover it for his ex-wife, who claims it is a lost family heirloom; Leonardo, who is writing a novel about Meucci, would benefit from possessing documentary proof of his subject’s achievement; and Barbara, an Italian tourist, who seems eager to buy it. “It’s like one led me to the next, isn’t it?” Julia thinks innocently but, of course, all is not what as it appears. Euclid warns her about Leonardo:

“We had to be very cautious and shouldn’t take everything Leonardo said at face value.”

His warning, however, applies equally to everyone, including himself. Julia, though, is caught up in the hunt, seeing it through the lens of spy fiction:

“…suddenly I felt like a secret agent, a 007 of science.”

Julia’s endearing naivety, which survives a number of shocks, is what makes the novel both enthralling and entertaining. “I felt like I’d been kicked in the guts,” she says when she finds out Euclid knows Angel’s ex-wife; “Fortunately I had nothing in my mouth or I would have choked,” she tells us when she discovers the nature of their relationship. My particular favourite is when she finds out the truth about Barbara:

“I guess I must have looked like someone in a cinema watching a film, when suddenly the projectionist loads the wrong reel and, instead of continuing with the same plot, a scene from another movie appears, one you know nothing about.”

Like a true mathematician, Julia updates her hypotheses according to any new information, while at the same time always seeming to assume that the latest update is the last (at least as she tells it – her conversational style is revealed at the end to be a conversation). Her loyalties also change: one moment she is searching Angel’s room, the next Euclid’s apartment – everyone who wants the document is suspected by someone else of having it. Julia herself is less and less sure why she is even looking in the first place:

“The truth is that my motives weren’t particularly clear.”

As well as searching for the document, Julia also seems to be searching for order, perhaps understandable given the problems Cuba was facing at the time and her mathematical mind. “Why can’t love be more rational?” she asks. We also take a detour into chaos theory, though describing the butterfly effect as though the reader is unlikely to have heard of it seems a misstep (as does a rather superficial comparison of mathematicians to novelists, “two sides of the same coin.”) These philosophical departures feel out of place because the novel is, at heart, escapist – for its characters as much as its readers. The search for proof is a distraction from both personal and national troubles for Julia, and, one suspects, the other characters as well. The novel itself is a delightful balance of order and chaos, as Suarez maintains a tight grip on the plot while at the same time making the reader feel like anything could happen.

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7 Responses to “Havana Year Zero”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Love the sound of this Grant, particularly as I find Cuba and its history fascinating. The mixture of screwball comedy and experimentation sounds wonderful!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Well, this sounds great! In fact you had me at your mention of ‘screwball comedy’ in the opening paragraph. As you know, I have a fondness for the genre, so you’re pushing on a open door here. I’ve yet to try anything from Charco, so maybe this will be the one!

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I read this a while back and I think your ‘screwball comedy’ description is pretty spot on. There’s a lot of depth to it, how we shape history and narrative to create order, but the McGuffin and the twists and turns of the plot make it just a lot of fun. Glad you enjoyed it too.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I think it had a real sense of fun, which is not to ay it didn’t have something important to say – it’s easy to forget you don’t have to be gloomy to be meaningful!

  4. 2021 end of year update | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] cuban shaggy dog tale: This has to be Karla Suárez‘ hugely fun Havana Year Zero. A 1990s-set Hitchcockian web of intrigue and deceit where the McGuffin is evidence that the […]

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