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Dancing to “Almendra” by Mayra Montero

Wistful for Cuba pre-Castro?

In a time long, long ago before the nation state of the Bahamas captured American media attention due to one Anna Nicole Smith, another Caribbean country riveted our gaze: Cuba. Today Cuba boils down to the three C’s: cigars, Castro, and classic cars. In the 50s, as Maya Montero suggests in her sixth novel, Dancing to “Almendra,”, Cuba’s national identity was intertwined with our own.

Cuban-born novelist Montero creates a delightful narrative of Havana in 1957. An entertainment reporter for the local rag, Joaquin Porrata, is assigned to cover the brutal slaughter of a hippo at the Havana Zoo. While covering this story, the zookeeper hints that the animal’s death was actually a message for Mafioso Umberto “Albert” Anastasia who was killed the same day in a New York barbershop. Porrata realizes that the hippocide could be an indicator of the turf war emerging between new restaurateurs, hoteliers, and casino operators in the plush and flush nation.

Porrata’s investigation takes him to the underworld of Cuban Mafiosi and a strange milieu of cabaret. At the cabaret, he meets Yolanda. Once a magician’s assistant, Yolanda lost one arm while performing the girl and swords trick. Yolanda’s history is interspersed in italicized narrative with Porrata’s POV. Yolanda is not so much a freak as symbolic of someone trying to make her own way in Cuba at the time. Yolanda reminds Porrata of the mother of his childhood best friend, and the incipient affection he felt for her. Things turn to romance.

Montero’s world is lively with bar names like “Sloppy Joes” and “the Boris” and visual cues such as “arms like vermicelli” or “bodies with ants in their mouths.” Even when the plot loses steam, her vocabulary surprises.

Ironically, the characters in "Almendra" have a myopic view of the US garnered from movies. Porrata receives inside information only if he can guarantee a meeting with actor George Raft via his entertainment reporter connections. Porrata often likens people he meets to film stars: Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri, Lana Turner, even Buster Keaton in Sunset Boulevard. For readers looking for a vision of Cuba prior to Castro, this isn’t it. What they may find is the way the US enchanted Cuba before Castro released the dungeon door.

Dancing to “Almendra”: A Novel by Mayra Montero translated by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
January 23, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-374-10277-7
Hardcover, $25
264 pages