Stephen Smith goes to Cuba and tries to get his books out of the library

In a library on Paseo de Marti in Havana – a single strip light, a stopped clock, a thrashed fan – I ask if they have anything by G. Cabrera Infante. The Cuban novelist was expelled from his country’s writers’ union in 1968, by which time he had already spent three years in exile. He has vehemently rehearsed exactly how underground his books are in his native land in a new collection of vindicatory essays, Mea Cuba, which I have boldly taken into Havana as hand luggage.

The librarian says she will go and have a look. Hooked into her cleavage is a pair of red spectacles. One of the lenses is cracked. At her heels is a frizzy-haired poodle. Cabrera Infante says that his novel, Three Trapped Tigers, was placed on a black list, ‘the Castroist Index’. Those who championed the book lost their jobs. He concedes that Cubans might be able to find his work, but if they let on they want to read it as well, they might wish they hadn’t.

When the librarian returns, she’s wearing the spectacles, and carrying four hardbacks. There’s something called Tap Roots by James Sweet about the American Civil War, published in 1942; a pair of liver-spotted Somerset Maughams – ‘the revolver was not there: his heart thumped violently against his ribs’ – and A Tale of Two Cities.

The librarian says: ‘I’m sorry, we have the books of Cabrera Infante but I’m afraid I cannot give them to you. We’re doing a lot of work here. Perhaps you can read these instead?’

‘Excuse me, you have his books but I can’t see them? Why not exactly?’

‘Because they are being reclassified,’ says the librarian.

‘Will I be able to see them next week?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Have you read him?’

‘No. But I would like to. Many people have asked for his books and recommended them.’

I open the Dickens, and I’m reflecting on that introduction, when a scrap of paper appears on the table by my hand. It’s the name and address of the librarian, whose initial is L. ‘If you come to my house, I have a friend who has Cabrera Infante’s books,’ she says.

From the unglazed window of her apartment overlooking Havana’s seafront, the Malecon, L. watched los balseros, the rafters, scrambling for Miami during the summer, she tells me. I’ve already seen some rafters myself – forlorn-looking figures dangling their legs over the sides of inner tubes off Havana’s shimmering east beaches. These turned out to be fishermen – mariners of a sort, then, presumably going down to the sea in the best boats their money could buy – and yet they all looked likely to capsize at any moment in the torpid swell. It was a head-clearing thought that los balseros were even less well-prepared than this. As I write, there have been no reported attempts on the Gulf of Florida for six weeks. The Cuban Government and the United States are in talks over allowing some 20,000 Cubans to emigrate legally to America, easing the crush of balseros at the US base at Guantánamo, eastern Cuba. Sources in the capital are expecting the permits to be divided between Cubans considered to have refugee status; those with families in the United States; and the lucky winners of a visa-lottery.

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