Don’t tell nobody

Michael Wood

  • Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard
    Viking, 352 pp, £16.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 670 87988 6
  • Havana Dreams by Wendy Gimbel
    Knopf, 234 pp, US $24.00, June 1998, ISBN 0 679 43053 9

‘Remember the Maine’ was the slogan, but what exactly was to be remembered? That the US warship of that name sank in Havana harbour on 15 February 1898? That the Spanish blew it up? That such things will happen as long as there are remnants of old empires in the Western hemisphere? That North Americans, always too trusting and too kind, need to get a little tougher? ‘Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain’ was the complete couplet, printed in William Randolph Hearst’s New York journal on 18 February.

This was not a new sentiment in the United States. In 1823 John Quincy Adams had suggested that ‘there are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation,’ so all New World Newtons ought to know what to do: if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off from its bosom. A helpful ally, mother nature, and if she’s not too sure about the timing of the tempest, she can always be helped out. One theory, quietly articulated in Elmore Leonard’s new thriller, is that the North Americans blew up the Maine themselves in order to start the war. Somewhere behind this notion lies the legendary cable Hearst is supposed to have sent to reporter Richard Harding Davis and cartoonist Frederic Remington: ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’

The line is echoed in Citizen Kane. The Cubans were already fighting for independence from the Spanish, and the US, the argument goes, liked the idea of independent Cubans even less than they liked the idea of Spanish neighbours. ‘You could say we’re here,’ a marine remarks in Cuba Libre just before the Maine blows up, ‘in case it looks like the Cubans are gonna take over their own country before we get a chance to do it ourselves. But don’t tell nobody.’ A war would get rid of the Spanish and allow the US to deal with Cuban independence on their own terms. Whatever the cause of the explosion, this is pretty much what happened. The war, which started on 24 April, was over by the end of the year, and the Cubans were not even invited to the signing of the peace treaty. An American military government followed, and Independence, celebrated in May 1902, rested on a Constitution which included the so-called Platt Amendment giving the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever necessary for ‘the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberties’. Even Wendy Gimbel, who quotes the Adams proposition in Havana Dreams but is no anti-American activist – no sort of activist at all – says this arrangement left Cuba ‘to the mercy of the Americans’.

Surely the Spanish blew up the Maine? They said not, but then of course they would say not. Their argument, a plausible one, was that the design of the Maine meant the coal bunker was too close to the powder magazine, and that the explosion was internal and accidental. A US Navy court of inquiry concluded that the explosion was externally caused, by a mine or a torpedo, although the conclusion was not unanimous and seemed more wishful than anything else. Ivan Musicant, in Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century,[*] argues that ‘the court found no proof, or even circumstantial evidence, of a Spanish conspiracy, and no physical confirmation of a mine beyond manifestly thinking it so.’ So the truth seems to be that a convenient accident did all the work that any conspiracy could be required to do.

Another way of saying this might be to argue that it didn’t matter how or why the Maine sank, and this line of thought is also reflected in Leonard’s book. Lionel Talavera, a ruthless and sinister major in the Guardia Civil looking after Spanish interests in Cuba, speaks to an American three days after the sinking. ‘You blame us for blowing up your battleship and your government will use it to declare war on Spain. Avenge the blowing up of the ship and help the poor Cuban people, so oppressed. But the true reason will be so you can have Cuba for yourself, a place for American business to make money.’ The American asks: ‘Did you blow up the Maine?’ Talavera shrugs and says, ‘Perhaps,’ meaning he doesn’t know and doesn’t care.

Ben Tyler, the American, is a cowboy from Arizona bringing a string of horses for sale in Cuba, but that’s just the beginning. He is also bringing guns for the Cuban insurgents and, before he has been in Havana a day, manages to get into a quarrel with a hotheaded Spanish cavalry lieutenant – a small-scale Spanish-American war, so to speak. The lieutenant is eager for a duel, and has pistols at dawn in mind. He slaps Tyler across the face with a glove, but Tyler just hits the lieutenant in return, and sends him sprawling across the room. When the lieutenant then draws a gun and extends it towards Tyler in ‘what must be a classic duelling pose’, Tyler, without posing, shoots him dead. The classy bar at the Hotel Inglaterra, which looked like the setting for a traditional European or colonial skirmish, has turned, effectively, into a Western saloon. Imperialism at its most discreet and most unlikely.

Tyler is imprisoned and left to rot for a substantial chunk of the book. Meanwhile, various other characters complicate the scene: Roland Boudreaux, a wealthy American to whom the horses were to be sold, and who owns much of the land and a lot of action in Cuba; his young American mistress Amelia Brown, a woman all set to get into more and more trouble; Victor Fuentes, Boudreaux’s agent, a man who looks like (and is) a rebel sympathiser biding his time; the local police chief and his spy; an American sailor who was blown up with the Maine but has survived and gets jailed because he won’t answer Talavera’s questions about what he saw just before the explosion (a launch pulling away from the stem of the ship, suggesting that a mine might have been set off). Tyler is helped to escape from prison and the plot thickens. There is a (faked) kidnapping of Amelia, a ransom note, and a packet of ransom money; an attempted bank robbery; a successful train robbery; a spell in a leper colony; plenty of killings; the start of the larger Spanish-American War; and a love affair between Amelia and Tyler. The heart of the plot, as so often in Elmore Leonard, is the money and the question of who’s going to keep it, and there are a number of very clever feints and switches before the matter is settled.

Leonard has specialised in recent years in modern crime stories, strongly researched and set in North American locations like Miami and New Orleans, with occasional excursions to the West Coast or to Atlantic City – I’m thinking of Glitz, LaBrava and Get Shorty – but he started out as a writer of Westerns, and in Cuba Libre he has combined the two genres and dipped them into history. More precisely, he has dropped a cowboy into a crime caper with political edges. This gives him a laconic hero, some sort of cousin of Clint Eastwood, and the chance of mildly sending up the very idea of genre. Tyler thinks he has killed one of Talavera’s henchmen, but the fellow comes back for more. Tyler tries again, aims his revolver at the man, and says: ‘This one’s gonna do it, partner. Your luck’s run out.’ ‘What do you call it when you’re on the dodge?’ Amelia asks him at one point: ‘Riding the owl hoot trail?’ Tyler is impressed, and wonders how she can know that. We wonder what this lingo is doing in the Caribbean.

The joke is slight, but it reminds us that Cuba is not only the setting of this novel, but a part of its subject. The last thing we see is a revenge killing, firmly and all but silently executed, a Cuban shooting a Spaniard, and the last words of the book evoke Ben Tyler’s affection for the island, a place he’s about to call home. ‘Man, this Cuba,’ he says. Then: ‘It’s gonna take some getting used to.’ Meaning it’s like the old West only better: greener and more tropical and more stylish. The memory of the Maine, in this novel, is a memory of complication and criss-crossing interpretations, not of simple outrage. But it is also the memory of a chance and an adventure, since the ensuing war licensed the North American presence once and for all. ‘Viva Cuba Libre’ is an insurgent slogan, but Cuba Libre is better known now in most places as a drink: rum and Coke. I don’t know where this bit of folk irony originated, but its political precision is impeccable. The island provides the sugar-become-booze, and the United States provides the non-alcoholic know-how.

Leonard is no great hand at love stories and there are moments of tiredness in the writing – or perhaps the editing. But the pace of the book is perfect, all the double crosses are surprising and satisfying and there is plenty of the dry wit we have come to associate with Leonard. A man robbing a bank says he has come to draw $4500 from Roland Boudreaux’s account. Asked if he has authorisation, he produces a Smith and Wesson.44 and says: ‘Right here.’ When Amelia is asked if she could see herself married to ‘an ordinary working man’, she says: ‘Well, not if he’s just ordinary.’

In Wendy Gimbel’s memoir, Havana Dreams, the Maine is part of a much longer story, which she thinks of as Cuba’s ‘master tale’: ‘Treasure Island, perhaps, crossed with The Tempest.’ In this perspective all treasure hunters look alike and you can’t tell the difference between Prospero’s magic and John Quincy Adams’s imperial science. ‘Fidel Castro is not so different from the conquistador Diego Velázquez.’ ‘Perhaps,’ Gimbel says of Castro, ‘he was no more than a spoiled rich boy who had never had to confront reality.’ Jose Martí, hero and architect of Cuba’s early moves towards Independence, is described as ‘a Cuban Don Quixote’. ‘Revolutionary zeal’ is ‘ignorance’; and ‘it’s hard to conceive of political ideologies so brilliant, so radiant that they’re worth all the human suffering they’ve created.’ It certainly is, but it’s also hard to sit around and watch the human suffering perpetuated by those systems we choose not to call ideologies – for example, the one sustaining what Gimbel calls ‘an enchanted place’, the ‘Eden’ of pre-Castro Cuba. Gimbel is not as naive or as reactionary as these phrases make her sound. It’s just that, as she says, ‘family remains the lens through which I look at the world.’ From this point of view all politics seem wilful, damaging and pointless, and Havana Dreams is the story of a family, or more precisely, the story of four generations of women in a family.

Natica Clews was born in Cuba in 1900, two years after the sinking of the Maine. Her father was an English engineer who fought for Cuban independence and then settled into a comfortable life. Natica married, got divorced, married again. At the time of writing she was still living in Cuba, frail but alert, and still quarrelling with her daughter Naty, a glamorous woman who, as the young wife of a middle-aged doctor, had a love affair with Fidel Castro. Naty now lives, according to Gimbel, on her memories and old illusions. Alina, the daughter of Naty and Fidel, born in 1956, escaped from Cuba, to much media attention, in 1993, her own daughter following her soon after. Gimbel has met and talked to all of these women, and has seen the correspondence of Fidel and Naty when he was a political prisoner on the Isle of Pines. The letters are starchy and touching, the way letters usually are when they are not in novels. Fidel says his memory of Naty cannot be erased and will accompany him to the grave. Naty asks him if he has read Remain Rolland. ‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I feel lost in this vast abyss which ignorance creates, because I know how life ought to be and what people should know in order to give meaning to their lives, and I am unhappy with myself.’ Fidel says he has ‘developed a certain preference for Dostoevsky’s novels.’

The problem with this well-intentioned book is not that the central relation between Naty and Fidel doesn’t seem all that compelling – what actual relation does until it has been reimagined? – but that Gimbel doesn’t get any closer to her characters than these formalities allow. This is in part because Naty manifestly held her at a distance. When Naty reads out her letters from Fidel she is following ‘a ritual she has performed so often, for so many people’. But Gimbel is also floating around the generalities rather than exploring or animating them. Naty and Fidel are just ‘two brave and formidable, if misguided people’. Gimbel says she found Naty ‘a complicated woman’, but she hasn’t found a language for this complication, perhaps because she is too intent on subtracting her story from politics rather than seeking a (political and other) context for it.

It’s significant that when Gimbel closes her main narrative with a line from Sunset Boulevard the quotation is slightly off. Gimbel and Naty have seen the film together in New York, and Naty makes the connection. ‘That’s who Fidel is, he’s Norma Desmond’. But Norma Desmond is not a simple figure, available for easy dismissal. And she doesn’t say, as Gimbel writes, ‘I was big, it’s the pictures that got small.’ She says ‘I am big’ – an illusion perhaps, but not a dead or trivial one. Remember the Maine.

[*] Holt, 512 pp., £37.50, 3 February, 0 8050 35001.