» Book Review
Stories Inspired by Midnight at the Havana Zoo
A Kind of Solitude by Dariel Suarez
Winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction
Willow Springs Book, 170 pages, paperback, $19.95
Elena, the keeper of the address registry in her neighborhood in Havana, is an outstanding citizen and an exemplary neighbor. But all that comes undone when the police come knocking at her door, find out about the contraband cheese in her fridge, and demand the name of the supplier, her old friend Emilio.
Isidro hauls his eighty-year-old father, a Santería practitioner who is writhing in pain, in a wheelbarrow through the storm-lashed, flooded streets of Havana to the hospital. As Isidro struggles getting the proper treatment for his father in a hospital with limited resources, he finds himself reconciling his family’s beliefs and his own lack of faith.
In both these stories, “The Inquest” and “Possessed,” Elena and Isidro find their solitary lives disrupted; there’s palpable angst and longing, and that sensibility forms the heart of Dariel Suarez’s debut story collection, A Kind of Solitude. The mélange of eleven stories, set in Cuba and largely after the fall of the Soviet Union, offers an intimate, penetrating, and nuanced sociopolitical commentary of living in a communist country facing severe economic crisis. There’s critique, criticism, flavors of patriarchy, but also a portrayal of the infallible beauty of hope, yearning, and ambition. Suarez’s characters are neither heroes nor victims. They are, in turn, bold, shrewd, cruel, corrupt, melancholic, contemplative, kind, dignified, and—as portrayed in the story “Primal Voice”—actual rock stars.
The opening story, “The Man from the Zoo,” is at once magnificent and heartbreaking, and appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Two men, Arquímedes and Orlando, steal a giraffe from the Havana Zoo in the middle of the night for an American trophy-hunter family. The story is fast-paced, yet periodically slows down to let you catch your breath and to reveal the history of the men and their motivations.
Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Suarez moved to the United States as a young teenager in 1997 during the island’s economic crisis known as The Special Period. His writing is reflective and critical of his country of birth; his prose is lyrical yet incisive, but not pedagogical. His Cuba is not a private or enigmatic Cuba, where revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries are smoking cigars and plotting government takeover (though some of his characters have fought alongside Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and marched in service and in protest of the country), but a Cuba that is deconstructed via the power of fiction and rendered approachable and open.
The title story, “A Kind of Solitude” [originally published in The Florida Review 40.1, Spring 2016] takes us deep into Cuban countryside, where sixty-year-old Eladio, a man who prefers the company of his farm animals over humans, prepares to leave for the city after he realizes that at his age he needs the protection of companionship. Haunted by the suicide of his wife, he nonetheless looks forward to uniting with his long-term mistress, Griselda. He ruminates about his love and devotion to both women, but as the evening progresses the focus changes—there’s an intruder on his property, and Eladio must act, for better or worse. The story showcases powerfully the way that fleeting choices can change our paths.
In “Mudface” we come to terms with the games and cruelty of young boys. In “The Comforter,” corruption and a young man’s integrity come head to head. And here we see Suarez’s brilliance in how he portrays the ugly interiority of complex, flawed characters, shaped by the sociopolitical landscape but shown without unnecessary judgments or justifications. The Special Period in Cuba was a time of great economic crisis with overwhelming shortages in food, medicine, energy, healthcare, and opportunities. Through the eleven stories in this collection, Suarez offers a multitude of perspectives and plot lines that wade through these difficulties and showcase human desire and ambition. In the story “Hope” we follow the motions of Vladimir who is yearning for a better life, a life his mother doesn’t want. We find a similar yearning in the story “Daredevils” where Suarez explores the friendship and love between two young men, Yaisandar and Miguel.
It was the story “Marching Men,” however, that affected me the most. There’s a moment toward the end of the story when the protagonist, Eloy Manduley, participates in the parade at La Plaza and brings to fore the triumph and tragedy of the Common Man:
. . . and the steady chant of “Fidel, Fidel, Fidel!” resounded within different pockets of the crowd. Eloy held his umbrella against his chest—the handle down at his right hip, the metal tip at his left shoulder—and raised his chin like a proud soldier. He was in sync with the throng. He knew the majority of people had been forced to participate, yet the men marched on with determined steps, stout voices, and celebratory gestures … for the first time in his life, Eloy was physically part of el pueblo, a nation brought together despite all odds. If only Gladys could see him. Maybe he could surprise her at the airport. Maybe he could take her dancing at the carnival at El Malecón.
At a recent reading from A Kind of Solitude at Boston’s Brookline Booksmith, Suarez also spoke about the process of writing his book. He spoke of the research involved, the craft and linguistic choices he made, and the challenges of choosing to write about a Spanish-speaking world in English—a language not his first but preferred because, he said, even though he loves speaking Spanish he didn’t think he could do justice to the Spanish language by writing in or translating his stories to it. He further talked about how writing about Cuba through his stories helped recalibrate his world view. For me, both the talk and the book reinforce the importance of reading international (and multilingual) authors. Dariel Suarez’s story collection contributes further to the American publishing landscape what Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Yiyun Li, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and others like them have helped evolve and enrich—the scope and possibilities of what constitutes the universal experience in literary fiction.