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The best books on Cuba

recommended by Oscar Hijuelos

In 2011, two years before his death, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos told us about books that evoke the land of his parents, from a noirish take on contemporary Havana to the cabaret scene of pre-Castro Cuba

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Before we look at your book choices, I was wondering whether you think Cuban novels have a particular feel to them?

It depends on whether you are talking about exile novels or novels out of Cuba itself.  In what I call homegrown Cuban novels, by folks like Virgil Suárez and Christina Garcia, there is more of an element of chagrin, a little scepticism and nostalgia in small doses – although Suárez’s work seems to be a little more American hip.

And when was the last time you went to Cuba?

I was there in 2002.

Are you tempted to go back?

Always. But I have just spent a few hours with one of my cousins who lives in Miami – she is rather adamantly anti-Castro, so that makes it harder for me to go there. I am fairly respectful of the exile community’s feelings, and as a consequence I have not gone as much as I would like to, although I am certainly thinking about it again.

Let’s have a look at your first choice, Havana Red, which is part of a series of four detective stories by Leonardo Padura.

Part of the reason I like his work so much is that it has a real noiresque feel about it.  He has a very literary sensibility and a wonderful sense of narrative, and really knows how to build themes in a way that is rather beguiling. When I first started reading his books I said this guy has got a wonderful style, and it is reminiscent of something I like myself – and then I found out he was a big fan of my work.

So there is a mutual crossover in style and appreciation?

Yes, but that is not why I picked him. I liked his books before. I was doing a reading in New York recently, and someone stood up and said that he counted Mambo Kings as one of the most Cuban novels he had ever read. It was the biggest compliment that I had ever received, given that I am a homegrown New Yorker. And I really appreciate that Cuban texture in Padura’s prose. He is 10 years younger than me, which is something I never used to be able to say about good novelists! But it was somewhat nice to come full circle and find a kindred spirit in terms of prose.

What about Inspector Mario Conde, the main character?

He is survival oriented and is always trying to work out an angle. What I also like about Padura’s novels is that he draws a good portrait of contemporary society in Cuba. He sees it from the inside, instead of hovering at a distance. I very much enjoy that. There is a real sense of authority in his books that is enchanting.

Your next choice is Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami, which is the second part of his autobiography where he discusses coming to Miami.

He is best known for his earlier book, Waiting for Snow in Havana.

Which is all about him growing up in Havana.

Yes, and it is about his family’s experiences coming to the States. This book is much more fragmented. It also has an intersection, if I can use that term. It intersects with his becoming American and not knowing what to make of it. So there is this kind of controlled madness in the narrative. If you read between the lines of that book, you will feel more than what you are actually reading. A lot of it is about the adjustments the narrator had to make to this new, unexpected and perhaps reluctantly embraced life.

He was one of the 14,000 unaccompanied children who came across as refugees as part of Operation Peter Pan.

Yes, and what is nice about it is this intellectual mind shining through these simply told tales. Also, there is a lot of riffing in language which is interesting to me.

He is now a professor at Yale.

He teaches history and religious studies there. He really exemplifies someone who has found a deeper sense of self through his writing, and of course he deals with the dual subject matter of what it is to be a Cuban and an American.

Although he came across to the US in very different circumstances to you, do you see any parallels between him and yourself in terms of identity, and adjusting to life in the States?

No matter what the pay-off is of life in the US, for Cubans there is always this nagging wonderment, if I may coin the phrase, about what could have been. In the case of this book, I think Carlos is trying to look forward. But at the same time, it is also a report on culture shock. That is something I can definitely relate to. Though I grew up in a Cuban household, I have often wondered what would have happened to me if my parents had never left Cuba.

When you were little, after a trip to Cuba with your mother, you got ill and ended up in hospital for many months. During that time you forgot your Spanish. That incident must have had a huge impact on your identity.

I think it was very traumatic, and yet I wonder if I would have been destined to feel estranged from my roots anyway. Those are the kind of questions that I often ponder. Had my family been living in Cuba during the revolution, perhaps I would have shared Carlos’s experiences. In either case, whether as an exile or as someone who stayed there, I very much doubt that I would have turned out the same person as the Hijuelos who grew up in New York. You see, while I grew up knowing that I was Cuban, listening to my Cuban parents and feeling a strong sense and tie to that legacy, I also felt so outside of it. The only way that I really re-entered it was through the imaginative world of my writing, in which I could wear the mask of a writer without having values imposed on me by other people.

Three Trapped Tigers, by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, looks at the cabaret society in pre-Castro Havana.

For me as a writer, this book is one of the first Cuban novels I have read that had an explosive and musical energy, which I found irresistible. I think that Mario Vargas Llosa has demonstrated that same kind of explosive energy in novels like Conversation in the Cathedral, with words populating the pages in the same way that vegetation takes over a forest. But few other writers can approach Infante in his verbal intensity and sense of rhythm. In his case, the words he used were vernacular and very contemporary. His language transports you to Cuba.

“I have often wondered what would have happened to me if my parents had never left Cuba.”

When people have asked me which authors influenced my own writings – like In Mambo Kings – I would always mention Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers and Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels. Those two authors ended up being very important to my work, especially Infante. He is very good on pre-Castro Cuba. The opening of the book is hilarious. It is set in some seedy nightclub where he slips in and out of English. In the original it is Spanish, Spanish, Spanish and then he switches into English.

It sounds very evocative.

Yes, it is. It is a wonderful novel. I personally miss him, and I think literature misses him. When he was writing this book he was completely in the zone, a bit like a tennis player at the top of his game. He was a young writer, feeling his powers and running with it like a musician learning how to play jazz. I felt very inspired in my own writing by him. Even though the book gets a little crazy, I would recommend it to anyone interested in experiencing what Cuba was really like. He worked as a journalist and really knew what was going on.

What about Carlos Fuentes’s Aura?

This book is an über-homage to Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges. It is a gothic piece. It’s a horror, a mystery, a Borgesian sleight of hand. Once you have read it, the effect changes and you become admiring of its technique. But on first reading it is a wonderfully surprising story, with a denouement which in retrospect is predictable but is enchanting.

It’s all about a green-eyed niece living in the house of an aged widow.

Yes. And although it is not set in Cuba, and he isn’t Cuban, I wanted to include him because he has great literary sensibilities. I think it is an exceptional book and one of the important novels to come out of Latin America.

Your final book is Paradiso by one of Cuba’s leading poets, Jose Lezama Lima. It is seen by many as a modern classic.

To be blunt, this is a very hard book to get through because it is so literary. I attempted to read the Spanish very carefully. Lima was the kind of writer whom Spanish scholars study for his language and syntax. One of the descriptions he uses is “yawning grass”, which is really wonderful. He has constructions that are amazing. But what really spoke to me is one of the characters in his narrative, Jose Cemi. He is a very sick, tubercular child whom I could really relate to on a personal level, because I was sick as a child. There is also a hallucinogenic quality to the prose, which I think has to do with Lima’s use of drugs for much of his childhood. I also think this book is the first really true magical realist novel. He has a chapter where the character is out at lunch and he suddenly starts describing a centurion’s battle with a Roman army – and you are thinking, what is going on? So it is a very complicated and yet rewarding narrative. It is wonderful in its portraiture.

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When I was growing up, I would hear people talking about family stories from Cuba and they always stayed in my mind. There is something about those kinds of stories which permeates your mind. There is this sense of authority when people say, listen to me. Well, this book has a similar quality. It is a really amazing novel that most people don’t seem to have heard of. And that’s a good reason to put it on my list.

July 21, 2011

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Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos is an American novelist, the son of Cuban immigrants. He was the first Hispanic to win a Pulitzer prize for fiction. He has also won the Rome prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His eight novels have been translated into 25 languages. He lives in New York City and teaches at Duke University

Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos is an American novelist, the son of Cuban immigrants. He was the first Hispanic to win a Pulitzer prize for fiction. He has also won the Rome prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His eight novels have been translated into 25 languages. He lives in New York City and teaches at Duke University