Saturday, September 7, 2013

Book Reviews: Time Voyagers, Dead Messiahs, and Cuban-Soviet Literature

By Claudio Iván Remeseira | Posted on Saturday, September 7, 2013, at 9:28 a.m. ET


When Argentine writer Andrés Neuman (Buenos Aires, 1975) was still a teenager, his parents two symphonic orchestra musicians decided they didn’t want to live in a country ruled by the Neo-liberal president Carlos Menem and moved the family to Spain. Andrés grew up between the two countries; his first novel Bariloche (1999), the story of a Buenos Aires trash collector who disposes the city’s garbage by day and does puzzles by night, is a metaphor for the author’s own uprooting and a reflection on  the decay of contemporary urban life and the nostalgia for a pristine nature. The novel was also the starting point of a stellar literary career, which included this praise by RobertoBolaño: “The literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and to a handful of his blood brothers”.

Traveler of the Century is Neuman’s fourth novel, and the first to be translated into English (by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García). Set in the 1820s in a small and mysterious German town surrounded by extensive farmland –very much like many Argentine cities look even today—and a few, menacing factories, it is a monumental literary undertaking about the power of fiction, translation, philosophy, and art that earned Neuman the prestigious Alfaguara Award. The critic Michael Gorra said in the New Republic: “Andrés Neuman writes about history and literature and the relation between them with an intelligence that his American contemporaries cannot match. His first book in English must not be his last.”

Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa (Bogotá, 1965) is considered by some critics as the literary heir to Gabriel García Márquez. In his fascinating, 466-page novel Necropolis, an unnamed author is invited to an International Congress of Biography and Memory in Jerusalem. While the perennial Middle East war rages outside the hotel that hosts the conference, scores of non-literary things happen inside of it. The narrator will be enthralled by one of those things in particular: The story of an evangelical pastor, recovering drug addict and ex-con, redeemed by a tattooed Messiah from Miami. But after the pastor is assassinated, the protagonist’s world will turn upside down. Translated into English by Howard Curtis.

The association between Cuba and the Soviet Union lasted for more than three decades, since the early days of the Cuban Revolution to the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991. During that time, the USSR replaced the US as the main source of foreign influence in the Caribbean island. Several generations of post-Revolution Cubans grew up under the powerful spell of Russian culture, from comics and cartoons to books, films, and the arts in general.

An increasing number of publications are now surveying that period. Utopía, distopía e ingravidez, by Cuban writer and scholar Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, offers a comprehensive analysis of the interconnections between Soviet and Cuban literature; the book is only available in Spanish.

A perfect introduction for non-Spanish readers is Caviar with Rum: Cuba-USSR and the Post-Soviet Experience, an anthology of essays edited by University of Connecticut’s professor Jacqueline Loss and Cuban novelist José Manuel Prieto. The authors of the essays are (mostly Cuban) scholars and artists who analyze the different aspects of the Soviet-Cuban legacy. 

Professor Loss, one of the leading American experts in Cuban studies, is also the author of  Dreaming in Russian: The Cuban Soviet Imaginary, which describes how the Soviet influence in popular culture and everyday life continued beyond the “Special Period” that marked the end of the formal “anti-imperialistic” bond between the two nations. As the inevitable “post-Castro” era approaches, these books offer a much needed guideline to Cuba’s immediate past and present.

This review was originally published in NBC Latino.

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