Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics @ the House of Illustration

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and its allies defeated the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The new revolutionary government enacted a wide array of new domestic laws and policies, but Castro always saw the revolution in Cuba as just the beginning of the liberation of the oppressed masses in not just Latin America but war-torn Africa and around the world, wherever the poor and downtrodden were oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial masters.

OSPAAAL

And so the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in Spanish the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina – abbreviated to OSPAAAL) was set up to fight globalisation, imperialism, neoliberalism and defend human rights, in Havana, in January 1966, after the Tricontinental Conference, a meeting of over 500 delegates and 200 observers from over 82 countries.

One of the first things the organisation did was establish a magazine to publicise its causes and titled Tricontinental. From 1966 into the 1990s more than fifty designers working in Havana produced hundreds of posters and editions of the magazine which expressed solidarity with the U.S.A.’s Black Panther Party, condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War, and celebrated Latin America’s revolutionary icons, as well as criticising the ongoing existence of U.S. military bases in Guantanamo Bay, calling for the reunification of North and South Korea and many other radical causes.

The exhibition includes some 33 of the total of 50 or so artists and designers who worked for OSPAAAL, including leading lights such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Helena Serrano, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila.

Unlike artists in the Soviet bloc the OSPAAAL designers weren’t shackled by the deeply conservative doctrine of Socialist Realism, but were free to pick and choose from all the best streams of current art, including Pop Art and psychedelia. They also co-opted images and ideas from capitalist adverts into what they called ‘anti-ads’.

The plan was for the posters to be stapled into copies of Tricontinental, and so distributed around the world. Because the posters were intended to be internationalist they had to use strong primal languages or find inventive ways of conveying their message. If any writing was used it was generally in the three major languages of Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Arabic.

By the mid-1980s heavy trade embargos and sanctions imposed by American had created such shortages that it ultimately forced the organization out of production. By that time approximately 326 OSPAAAL posters had been produced.

Altogether it’s estimated that some nine million OPSAAAL posters were distributed around the developing world. At its peak the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers, mostly students. At one time, it was common for posters from issues of Tricontinental to be put up on the walls of student community centres.

This exhibition brings together 170 works (100 posters and 70 magazines) produced by 33 OSPAAAL designers, created between 1965 and 1992, which are not only striking and dramatic art works in their own right but shed unexpected insights onto the long history of the Cold War.

The Mike Stanfield Collection

While originally distributed freely in editions of thousands, OSPAAAL posters and magazines are now rare and highly sought-after. The works in the exhibition are all drawn from a single UK private collection – The Mike Stanfield Collection, the largest collection of OSPAAAL material in the world, gathered by British collector Mike Stanfield over a 25-year period. Every work in the exhibition is drawn from his collection.

Posters

The poster designers used every trick in the toolbox of capitalist advertising plus a lot more they invented. The diversity and inventiveness of approaches is astonishing. Obviously the cause, the fundamental political aim of the posters, was deadly serious – but this didn’t stop them using scathing satire to make their points.

And above all they didn’t limit themselves to one aesthetic but seized an extraordinary freedom to experiment, with the result that you see everything from bold typography and photomontage to psychedelic colours and pop culture-inspired graphics, iconic modern imagery or ancient native objects pressed into service, silhouettes, psychedelic reverberating, cartoons and biting satire.

Cuba

The first edition of Tricontinental included an article by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a folded poster by Alfredo Rostgard, thus inaugurating its two-pronged approach to radical propaganda: text for those who could read, stirring images for those who couldn’t.

Che Guevara (1969) © Alfredo G. Rostgaard, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

It’s almost too obvious to point out but, in the Soviet bloc, the canon of revolutionary heroes from Marx through Lenin, Stalin on down, were all portrayed in real, or heroically socialist realist style. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise how utterly unlike that dull stifling tradition the OPSAAAL images are, freely taking from contemporary pop and op art and psychedelic art.

Africa

The designers were tasked with distilling complex anti-colonial conflicts down into simple but striking images, symbols which would require little or no explanation. This image of African women in traditional costume and carrying their babies in baby-carriers is made vivid and powerful by the addition of the semi-automatic rifles slung over their other shoulders.

The all-consuming nature of the struggle, the need to balance ordinary life with the struggle, the empowered role of women in the struggle, and the lack of facial features indicating that these are just two out of millions and millions anonymous fighters across the continent, are all brilliantly conveyed.

After Emory Douglas (1968) © Lízaro Abreu Padron, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Apartheid

Apartheid was a sore on the conscience of the world throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of the OPSAAAL posters were simple images of oppression. This is unusual in being a more narrative image, with its four pictures showing the progressive, and inevitable, collapse of the repressive regime. Note the use of the four cardinal languages, Spanish, English, French and Arabic.

Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of South Africa (1974) Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Asia

The Vietnam War came to symbolise neo-imperialist Western super-violence against nationalist independence struggles and crystallised America’s reputation as the great enemy of freedom for many Third World countries.

This clever poster shows the word Saigon slowly morphing from being dominated by the Stars and Stripes to bearing the flag of the communist North, suggesting that the rebels would win in the end. As they did.

Saigon, International Week of Solidarity with Vietnam (1970) © Rene Mederos Pazos, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Anti-America

Cuba is just 90 miles from the American mainland.

From the moment Castro’s revolution succeeded, the Americans tried to overthrow it. In 1961 they launched the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion which ended in humiliation, but continued making intermittent attempts to assassinate Castro, as well as imposing crippling sanctions on its tiny neighbour.

In response Cuba helped to focus the world’s attention on America as the heartland of neo-colonial oppression. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition distort and subvert imagery and symbols central to American culture, such as the Great Seal, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty or, as here, Uncle Sam himself, zapped by the power of the World Revolution.

World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution (1980) © Victor Manuel Navarrete, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Using native cultural heritage

As a way into contemporary liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia or the Far East, some OPSAAAL designers had the idea of taking traditional indigenous artefacts and giving them a modern spin, mostly putting a machine gun in their hands. Some of these aboriginal peoples also represented the very first resisters to the colonial oppression which their distant descendants were now fighting against.

This approach tapped into nationalist feelings in the respective countries, and also made contemporary protesters feel, or realise, that they were in fact part of a long, long lineage of resistance and protest. The ten or so images which used old imagery like this were among my favourites.

Guatemala (1968) © Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Magazine covers

To some extent the designers’ style was dictated by a shortage of materials, including good quality paper and printing ink, embargoed by the United States. This encouraged the designers to eschew subtlety in shade and contour and favour high-contrast photography and large areas of clearly defined colour. Tricontinental’s often starkly simple covers were printed in four colours by offset lithography.

Anti-America

Although little Cuba suffered badly from American sanctions, during the 60s and 70s there were many radical American supporters of the revolution. The San Francisco-based People’s Press published a North American edition if Tricontinental, and images created by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party newspaper were adapted for use by OPSAAAL.

There are posters here supporting the imprisoned black activist Angela Carter, as well as memorials for various black radicals shot or imprisoned in America. But in a way, it was the imaginative symbols of American oppression which make the most impact.

Tricontinental magazine 33

Anti-apartheid

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was only the most extreme version of institutionalised white racism, which also included the segregation laws in America, so vehemently protested by the Civil Rights Movement.

For me the OPSAAAL posters and Tricontinental cover art are at their best when they embody a really strong design idea, as in this simple but scathing image, a piece of Pop Art collage used to withering effect.

Tricontinental 76

Thoughts

1. Taken together they make up a fascinating review of visual styles and approaches available to political poster makers in the late 60s and 70s. In many ways the magazine covers are even more inventive and biting than the posters. Lots and lots of them have a really strong visual and intellectual impact, like the image – blown up, here, into a wall-sized hanging – of an American astronaut reaching out to the moon while standing on the backs of two prone African Americans.

2. It’s a reminder of just how much conflict there was around in the world in the 1970s when I grew up, with military dictatorships running most of South America, with colonialist regimes and apartheid South Africa still repressing millions of Africans, while millions of others were caught up in brutal civil wars, and then topping everything the nightmare of Vietnam which was promptly followed by the living hell of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

When you factor in that half of Europe was under Communist tyranny and there was an endless diet of scares about whether this or that incident might trigger World War Three, the world I grew up in seemed a much more violent and dangerous place than it does today.

3. This is embodied in the way there are so many guns in the posters. Almost all the native artefacts-updated ones simply put guns in the hands of tribal gods. In the last room in particular, almost every poster seemed to feature a man or woman or sometimes an inanimate object, holding a sub-machinegun. Stepping back from the rights and wrongs of the causes, the final room in particular gave me a claustrophobic sense of violence and fighting going on in every part of the world.

That’s maybe the main feeling the exhibition gave to me, but other visitors will find their own threads and meanings. Above all I defy you not to be thrilled by the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of so many of the works on display.

Installation view of Designed in Cuba at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

And it’s worth pointing out that the curators of the exhibition flew to Cuba specially to interview the surviving OPSAAAL designers and that the exhibition includes the resulting video, in which leading designers such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila explain at length their motivation and approach, the design ideas and technical constraints, which lay behind the Tricontinental phenomenon.

This is another brilliantly conceived and beautifully laid out exhibition from the House of Illustration.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith (1999)

Havana had been the staging area for the treasure fleets of the Spanish empire. Over time silver and gold were replaced by American automobiles, which were replaced by Russian oil. All of this was handled in the warehouses of a barrio called Atares, and when the Soviet Union collapsed parts of Atares, like a half-empty vein, did too. One decrepit warehouse dragged down its neighbour, which destabilised a third and spewed steel and timbers into the street until they looked like a city that had undergone a siege, stone pulverised in heaps, garlands of twisted steel, not to mention the potholes and shit and doorways heady with the reek of urine. (p.230)

This is not the Havana of the tourist brochures.

Arkady Renko

The fourth in Martin Cruz Smith’s series of novels about Russian investigator, Arkady Renko, opens on a down note with the deaths of two main characters from previous books. Arkady was contacted from the Russian Embassy in Havana by an official asking him to come and investigate the disappearance of his old friend/sparring partner, ex-KGB Colonel Sergei Pribluda.

Pribluda was working undercover at the Russian Embassy in Cuba, something to do with investigating the murky world of sugar and trade deals. His body – or a horribly bloated, waterlogged version of it – has been discovered in the broad Havana Bay. He was copying the local neumáticos, poor fishermen who can’t afford even the simplest boat, and so fish suspended inside inflated car inner tubes, with a bit of netting strung underneath to support the body. Not much protection against sharks or other underwater perils, but it wasn’t a shark that killed Pribluda. What did?

Much worse, we discover that Arkady had finally married Irina, the woman he met in the first novel of the series, the best-selling Gorky Park, but that she has died in a stupid mix-up in a shambolic Russian medical clinic, injected with penicillin when she had expressly stated her allergy to it. Arkady had popped out for a newspaper and returned to find her stone dead. After smashing the place up in a fury, he retreated to his apartment, from which he rarely emerges any more, no matter who comes knocking on the door, his mood not helped by the futility of police work in a post-communist Russia where crime rates have soared and half the politicians are from the mafia.

The call from Cuba offered a journey as pointless as everything else. Why not go?

Suicide

In fact so completely dark and ashen is Arkady’s world that in the opening scenes we see him steal a syringe from the forensic lab where Pribulda’s body is being cut open and later, back in his temporary apartment, get as far as raising a vein and pricking it, right on the verge of injecting 10 centilitres of air into his system, which will make his heart stop and kill him. Committing suicide.

But it’s at this moment that the burly minder and translator he’s been assigned by the local police, one Rufo Pinero, breaks open the apartment door and hurtles Arkady back against the apartment wall, stabbing once with a knife, narrowly missing and retracting his arm to try again when – he realises the long needle of a syringe is sticking out his ear, through which it has entered his brain. Arkady has stabbed him in self defence with the needle he was holding, without even realising it. Rufo staggers away, slumps to the floor and dies. That changes things.

The case

The cops are called and, ironically, Arkady who came to investigate a death now finds himself at the centre of a murder investigation. He is removed from his flat – now a crime scene – and parked at the empty apartment of the (presumed dead) Pribluda. Here, true to his incurably nosy character, Arkady searches everything and hacks into Pribluda’s computer, finding only hints and tips, nothing massively revealing.

Having stolen Rufo’s key from his still warm body before the cops came, Arkady now searches Rufo’s apartment, finding cryptic notes written on the wall by the phone. After some deciphering they appear to refer to his arrival in Havana and to another event occurring in a week’s time, with Angola written next to the time and date. Angola? Arkady is far from convinced that the bloated body found in the bay is Pribluda, anyway. And he finds a photo showing Pribluda, Rufo and some of the other police he’s met, with the words ‘Havana Bay Yacht Club’ scribbled on the back. What’s that about?

The tension is ratcheted up a notch after Arkady lets one of the investigating cops, sergeant Luna, into the apartment only for him to pull out a baseball bat and start jabbing Arkady with it, asking him what he knows about the Havana Bay Yacht Club. Swiftly the jabbing escalates to a full blown attack, Luna beating Arkady’s legs from under him and then mercilessly battering him on the ribcage, with a few final blows on the face for good measure.

Luna warns him to stay in the apartment and not to go out until the weekly flight to Moscow comes round, when Luna will drive him direct to the airport and put him on the plane. ‘Got that, Russian? Stay here. Don’t move.’

Ofelia Osorio

In fact it takes Arkady a few hours to recover consciousness and several days before he can even walk. But as soon as he can, he finds himself drawn out of the apartment, by visitors and invitations, though all against his better judgement. Slowly – and very enjoyably for the reader – a complex web of relationships is revealed as Arkady meets a cast of 20 or so disparate and colourful characters, each of them contributing fragments to the plot but also acting as a cross-section of Cuban types: cops, scientists, prostitutes, businessmen, garage mechanics, neumáticos, voodoo worshipers, as well as the few surviving old timers from the former Soviet Embassy, and a couple of sinister American exiles…

Lead character is the black policewoman Ofelia Osorio. We see her being harassed by her sexist colleagues at work, returning to her tiny apartment which she shares with her two daughters and her nagging mother, and we get a strong sense of their poverty, fighting over a banana, discussing how best to cook a mango skin.

We are also introduced to Ofelia’s one-woman crusade to try and cut down on teenage prostitution in Havana, or at least try to tackle the ubiquitous police corruption which turns a blind eye to it. She arrests a middle-aged German at a well-known love motel where foreign men take Cuban teenage girls – in this case the 14-year-old Teresa. As Ofelia interviews the German we get a feel for the impossibility of her task, as he ignores all her threats, confident in his foreign passport and his dollars.

And the young prostitute – or jinetera – turns the tables on Ofelia by bragging about how much money she makes a month, multiple times Ofelia’s own pitiful salary. And we are sadly shown how Ofelia’s crusade is driven by fears that her own young daughters, just a few years from jinetera age, will end up the same, walking the seafront touting for rich foreign men to sleep with. She is trying to secure the future for them but knows she can’t.

Frustrated, Ofelia returns to the hotel, the ‘Casa de Amor’, to pick up the other foreign man seen taking in a teenage Cuban, but stumbles into a blood bath. The foreigner has been comprehensively cut to pieces with a machete and the Cuban girl he was with has had her head almost completely severed. Ofelia realises she knows the girl, Hedy, and runs to throw up in the toilet. But it overflows, she realises it’s blocked and, pushing her hand through the blood and puke, she pulls out a scrunched-up passport and photo blocking the U-bend. It is a photo of Renko taken at the airport. The assassin must have mistaken the foreigner, similar build, even a similar name – Franco / Renko – for the Russian. Someone really has got it in for him, but why?

Slowly, through the course of the novel, these two lonely, damaged people, Arkady and Ofelia, find themselves being pushed together. She tells him about the hotel bloodbath; they discuss theories about a) what’s happening b) why someone’s trying to kill him. Later – in a film-like sequence – Arkady rescues Ofelia from the car boot where the increasingly wayward sergeant Luna had tied and locked her. After this harrowing event, they drive to a remote hotel, like bandits on the run, shower, calm down and, in the warm Havana evening, in a safe hotel room far from their enemies, become lovers.

Cast of characters

But while their love affair is slowly building in the background, plenty of other things happen in this multi-stranded narrative. At a party in his apartment block Arkady meets a whole roomful of disparate characters who will help shape the warp and woof of the narrative as well as providing all sorts of insights into Cuban culture and history.

For a start there is a black woman devotee of Santeria, a form of voodoo, who goes into a frenzy, moaning to the beating drums and picking up live coals for the fire. In fact there are several extended sequences explaining the differences between the various voodoo gods of Cuba and their present-day followers. Even Ofelia knows which voodoo clan she belongs to.

Then there is the desperate ballet dancer, Elaine Lindo, whose father was executed after he became involved in one of the many conspiracies against Castro, and who hopes against hope that a Russian like Arkady can get her out of the country so she can pursue her dancing career in the free world. She targets Arkady for seduction but underestimates her man and his disillusioned world-weariness.

The American exiles

And then there is a middle-aged black American, George Washington Walls who, back in the 1960s, was a well-known radical and urban guerrilla, who hijacked a plane and got it to bring him to Cuba: and now we see what the afterlife of such a figure looks like.

It looks very like being a capitalist entrepreneur, as he takes Arkady for a drive in his 1950s car and introduces him to an older American exile, John O’Brien. The two Americans take Arkady on a tour of the casinos abandoned after the revolution and explain their grand scheme to revive them, to make Cuba once again the playground of the Caribbean. They even offer Arkady a job as ‘head of security’ in their bright new empire.

Arkady has a shrewd suspicion they are bribing him, coaxing him into revealing other secrets: like what he knows about this damn Havana Bay Yacht Club. Later, when Arkady makes his way out to what was once the yacht club out at one end of the bay, he finds its luxury buildings fallen into disrepair – it became first a socialised sports club and then was abandoned. And he finds Walls waiting for him on a power yacht moored at the pier. What are they up to, these two smooth-talking, post-radical Yanks?

The scam

Among other colourful locations around Havana, Renko’s investigations take him to the city’s Chinatown. He knows from Pribluda’s computer records that Pribluda went for a ‘karate lesson’ here every week, with $100 cash. But when he asks the way to the address given on the computer, he finds it is now a hairdressing salon. Walking back Arkady passes a cinema where a ridiculous karate film is playing and suddenly recognises the film’s title as mentioned on Pribluda’s files. On an impulse he pays a few pesos and goes in. Barely has he sat in the darkened auditorium than a stylishly dressed, middle-aged man sits next to him and they get into a muttered conversation, the man wanting the money in return for a briefcase. OK.

Back at the apartment, Arkady finds the briefcase contains documents detailing how, at a very high governmental level, the Cubans have been defrauding the Russians out of about possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in their Russo-Cuban sugar trades. Partly by paying ‘commission fees’ to a supposedly neutral Panamanian company, which had been acting as referees in a trade dispute between the two countries, but which the papers show is owned by senior Cuban officials. Is this what Pribluda was investigating? Was this enough to get him murdered? But what has it go to do with the Havana Bay Yacht Club? Or with O’Brien and Walls’ plans to make Havana the Las Vegas of the Caribbean?

Only in the last thirty pages or so do all these disparate threads and characters suddenly and powerfully come together, as Arkady and Ofelia stumble over the conspiracy at the heart of the book – discovering too late that they have been trapped into taking part in it.

Dramatis personae

  • Arkady Renko – Moscow militia investigator with a colourful past as described in the three previous novels about him. Called to Cuba to investigate the death of his old adversary-friend Colonel Pribluda.
  • Colonel Sergei Pribluda – Arkady’s sparring partner in previous novels. The plot is triggered when his corpse is found in Havana Bay, so bloated the pathologist and Arkady aren’t even sure it is him.
  • Ofelia Osorio – black Cuban police officer, waging a one-woman campaign against the exploitation of Havana’s teenage prostitutes or jineteras. Through her eyes we explore Cuba’s poverty and corruption, its ambivalence about the communist regime and Castro, its hatred of the Russians who abandoned them, its deep attachment to voodoo beliefs and practices.
  • Sergeant Luna – big black ex-Cuban soldier-turned-cop who beats Arkady up and turns out to be a strong man for Walls and O’Brien’s conspiracy.
  • Dr Blas – Forensic pathologist, cynical witness to Havana’s murders and deaths, an educated amiable father figure, who shrewdly discusses the Pribluda case with Arkady, half-heartedly invites Ofelia to foreign conferences as a way of chatting her up, and is revealed at the end to be in on the conspiracy.
  • Rufo Pinero – ex-boxer, ex-soldier and now translator for the Havana police. The mystery really begins when he makes an unprovoked attempt to murder Arkady who, up to that moment, he’d been perfectly friendly with.
  • Erasmo – mechanic in the illegal garage downstairs from Pribluda’s apartment where Arkady is staying. He fought in Angola where his legs were blown off by a mine, and now gets about in a wheelchair or trolley. He introduces Arkady to elements of Cuba’s black economy and to the beauty of the many 1950s American cars which still cruise the streets. He is included in several old soldier photos Arkady finds, along with Luna and several of the other characters. Slowly it emerges that they all forged a bond as soldiers in Africa, and have brought that unity back to Havana, but for what purpose?
  • Mostovoi – Russian photographer working at the Russian Embassy. When Arkady breaks into his apartment he finds official photos, then a predictable range of porn photos, and then sinister photos of crime scenes, some of them connected with his case.
  • Olga Petrovna – a plump old lady who works at the Russian Embassy. Arkady eventually finds out that she and Pribluda were lovers, it was she who knew about Arkady from Pribluda’s occasional references to him, and it was she who wired him using Embassy facilities when Pribluda went missing, asking him to come investigate.
  • Bugai – official at the Russian Embassy. Arkady tricks him into confessing that Pribluda was on the trail of the Cuban government’s defrauding Russia out of millions of dollars over its sugar deals, and that Pribluda had to be ‘got out of the way’. And ensures that this confession is heard and taped by Olga Petrovna and police officials. Bugai’s fate will not be nice…
  • George Washington Walls – runaway American 1960s radical and airplane hijacker from the same generation of black radicals as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, who he name checks. But Walls is now a fully-fledged capitalist and entrepreneur, involved in O’Brien’s plans to revive Cuba’s casinos, and other, murkier plots.
  • John O’Brien – 70-year-old American exile who owns luxury yachts, fancy cars, and beguiles Arkady with his plans to revive Cuba’s casino business. Freely admits to running the Havana Bay Yacht Club which, he claims, is a harmless social club, ‘Come along and see for yourself!’ But underneath the charm he is planning something big… but what?

Fidel Castro

Dictator of Cuba after the communist revolution in 1959, well known for always wearing his Army fatigues, smoking an enormous cigar, for his big beard and interminable speeches, Fidel looms over the whole novel, all the Cuban characters not even referring to him by name, but just stroking an imaginary beard or pointing to their chins. (When Cruz Smith describes Fidel’s habit of never making his plans public, sleeping in any number of secret locations, decoying assassins with fake motorcades while he slips off in the opposite direction in an unmarked car and so on, it immediately reminded me of Frederick Forsyth’s description of the identically paranoid behaviour of Saddam Hussein in The Fist of God.)

The crux of the novel turns out to be a conspiracy among Fidel’s senior army officers to assassinate him, with the organisational help and technical know-how of O’Brien and Walls, and their cohort of soldiers who met and bonded while serving in Angola – including Luna, Erasmo, Mostovoi and a few others.

Fidel’s one and only actual appearance in the novel is to attend a waterfront cultural display, a Noche Folklórica, with live music and dancing. He is given pride of place in a purpose-built stand and – in a gruesome touch – sat next to a life-size voodoo doll. Watching in the boat in which O’Brien and Walls have brought him, just offshore of the big musical performance, Arkady realises with a jolt that the doll is one which he and Ofelia discovered, earlier in the book, had been specially constructed so as to hold radio-controlled explosives. (It’s a long story). But now he sees the connection: Mercenaries in Angola + Their expertise in mines and explosives + Resentment of Fidel among the general population and especially the military + Walls and O’Brien’s grandiose plans for a post-communist Cuba = assassination of Fidel.

It all fits together. The Havana Bay Yacht Club was just an innocent name the conspirators gave themselves as cover for their meetings. And, in the final twist, O’Brien now reveals to a horrified Arkady that all they needed to make the conspiracy complete was the involvement of an outsider, of a hated Russian, to push the remote controlled switch, blow up the dummy, and then be gunned down by distraught patriots – thus disposing of the dictator and pinning the blame on Cuba’s now most-hated-enemy. Perfect! as he forces Arkady at gunpoint to take the remote control device.

Since we know that Castro is still, in fact, alive, it is giving nothing away to say that the conspiracy doesn’t succeed. But it comes desperately close. The assassination makes a thrilling central plot, it brings together the social and political themes of failed communism and disillusioned soldiers – and it also gives Cruz Smith the opportunity to do what he does best, describe the great man in a few lines of typical, throwaway brilliance.

In the front row’s places of honour were an empty chair and a man with a grey beard who looked as if he had been big once but had since shrunk into a stiff green shell of ironed fatigues. He had the abstracted expression of an old man regarding a thousand grandchildren whose names he could no longer keep track of. (p.314)

Angles

So it’s essentially a crime novel, but with interesting twists:

a) It’s set in Cuba (no doubt lots of other crime novels are, but I’ve never read any). The novel is drenched in descriptions of the sights and sounds of Havana, the smells and music, the scantily clad prostitutes and their razor-thin pimps and the somnolent cops, the rusting balconies of 1930s houses and the streets full of colourful 1950s American cars. And the pages devoted to explaining the voodoo cults which Cubans still believe in and widely practice are fascinating and compelling.

b) The hero is a disillusioned Russian, thus giving us a) an outsider’s view of everything but b) the outsider not just to the exotic location, but to us, the readers – not the usual Brit referring things back to London, but a melancholy, middle-aged man homesick for the frozen streets of his own crime-ridden, corrupt Moscow.

c) The combination allows Cruz Smith to spend pages describing Cuba, the streets of Havana and its bay, in particular; but to overlay or underpin these with continual references to the troubled political history between the USSR and Cuba. Russia spent billions supporting Cuba as one of the few countries which could boast a successful communist revolution, making it a flagship to the whole of the Americas and funding Cuban soldiers to fight in Africa and support other revolutionaries around the world. So much so that Arkady blames the Cubans for bankrupting Russia. Then, when the USSR collapsed, the tap was abruptly turned off. And now, in 1996 (when the novel appears to be set) the Cubans’ respect for Russia has turned to bitter hatred. As Rufo tells Arkady, the Soviet Embassy shed thousands of officials as Russia withdrew its technical and financial aid to the island. And so infuriated were the locals that they slashed the tyres of every Russian car and local taxis refused to give them a lift, so that the fleeing Soviet staff ended up having to walk to the airport.

So, as well as the pacey plot, there are numerous other levels, cultural, historical and political, on which to enjoy this novel.

Magic prose

The most obvious of them is Cruz Smith’s graceful command of the English language. Many people write novels, but not so many are actual writers, people who can make the language perform magic tricks.

‘It’s perfect.’ Arkady let out a plume of smoke as blue as the exhaust of a car in distress. (p.10)

‘Habit.’ Going through the motions, Arkady thought, as if his body were a suit that shuffled to the scene of the crime, any crime, anywhere. (p.25)

He lived in Miramar, the same area as the Embassy, in an oceanfront hotel named the Sierra Maestra, which offered many of the features of a sinking freighter: listing balconies, rusted railings, a view of the water. (p.63)

Mostovoi pondered the photograph of a Cuban girl lightly breaded in sand. (p.63)

Luna held up a key to illustrate and put it in a pocket. He had a voice like wet cement being turned by a shovel. (p.77)

They went past high rises that had the dinginess of fingered postcards… (p.137)

Most of the prose isn’t this showy but it is consistently enjoyable, fluent, casually poetic or, where it needs to be, to the point, factual, understated. It is effortlessly competent and appropriate. After recently reading several novels by John le Carré it is a relief to get away from the British class system, from obsessive references to jolly public schools and characters who say ‘old boy’ at the end of every sentence. To enter a realm where the writing is pure and free to fly, to perform acrobatics, a prose which simply tells you what is going on with a consistently wry, detached humour, and with poetry to throw away in wonderful asides.

Fishing boats with rod racks and flying bridges slid by, speedboats as low and colourful as sun visors, and power yachts with sun lounges and Jet Ski launches, oceangoing palaces of affluence and indolence sculpted in white fiberglass. (p.164)

There were no streetlamps on the Malecón, only a couple of faint headlights like the sort on luminescent fish found in an ocean trench. Although he latched the shutters closed and lit a candle, darkness continued to seep into the room with a solid, tarry quality. (p.208)

From its perch a canary seemed to examine Arkady for a tail. (p.226)

Outside they heard the ocean say, This is the wave that will sweep away the sand, topple the buildings and flood the streets. This is the wave. This is the wave. (p.244)


Credit

Havana Bay was published by Random House in 1999. All quotes and references to the 1999 Macmillan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

%d bloggers like this: