Between the Darts
Cuban Crime Novelist Jose´ Latour
José Latour is a
Cuban writer living in Havana. Akashic Books is putting out his new novel, Outcast
(217 pages, $13.95). Publisher Johnny Temple asked me if I wanted to interview
him. My only experience of Cuba was when I lived in Miami, where we lived above
this Cuban restaurant. Outside there were always small groups of men sitting
in their white stained undershirts and shiny pastel pants, their Spanish flying
like the cards they threw down onto wobbly folding tables. I’d sip 50-cent
cups of steamed chocolate with ice cubes in the cool recesses and watch. Every
15 minutes one of the men from outside would toss his cards down in disgust,
storm into the restaurant, reach into a small wastebasket that sat on a side
table. He’d grab out a fistful of darts and throw, his entire body moving
with his arm as if he were performing an out-of-water breaststroke. The darts
would hurl into a man’s face pinned to the wall. The face was covered with
so many dart holes his nose looked like he was a victim of a hunting accident.
I was haunted by that face; it seemed like the man on the wall knew nothing
would ever touch him. He stared out with a stern, almost bored expression. Five
darts in the eye were nothing. His expression implied you needed to pray he
would never climb out of the picture and get his turn with the darts.
When I asked a waitress
who he was, she told me Castro, a dictator, then she spit. Her family was still
there. Trapped. So close to Florida you can get there in an hour in a speedboat.
But she couldn’t go there. They couldn’t come here. Sometimes you
would even see them, not in speedboats but in dilapidated dinghies, washed up
on the beach, not resisting as INS men wearing thick rubber gloves hauled them
away in handcuffs.
I was intrigued to interview
a writer who was there, in that country that made my waitress spit. We had to
do the interview by e-mail. I first off asked all these political questions
like, "Do you have the freedom to write what you want?" Temple then
informed me that all e-mail to Cuba passes through the government’s server,
so I had to be careful. We constructed questions that were okay, that maybe
would artfully extract some of what is trapped behind a censor’s black
pen, between the dart holes.
Latour is coming to New
York Monday, Oct. 18, for an Outcast release party at Tonic, 6:30-9 p.m. He’ll
give a brief reading.
Please describe the story of Outcast.
story is a reflection on one of the darkest sides of human behavior: Greed leads
to scheming for profit and some individuals won’t stop at anything to achieve
their objectives. It is also a tale on how social environments shape the lives
of the book’s characters, maybe mirroring the outlooks, joys and sorrows
of millions of people in Cuba and the U.S.
As a writer of Cuban crime fiction,
who and what are your major influences?
First of all, the giants
in universal literature. Authors like Cervantes, Shakespeare, Balzac, Dostoevsky.
There are also great writers in this century who influenced me: Alejo Carpentier,
Jorge Luis Borges, Mika Waltari, John Steinbeck. How these masters dissect human
nature never ceases to amaze me. In the 1950s, as a teenager, I read hundreds
of crime books in English: Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler,
Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Richard Prather and Mickey Spillane come
to mind. From 1961 on, Cubans were prevented from acquiring new books by Western
writers when trade between the island and most capitalist countries was severed,
although I presume that with the turn that events took they wouldn’t have
been imported anyway, for ideological reasons.
From socialist crime fiction,
one Russian writer made a lasting impression on me: Julian Semyonov, sort of
an East-bloc John Le Carré. The foundation of the International Association
of Crime Writers (IACW) in 1986 made it possible for Cuban crime novelists to
reconnect themselves to Western crime literature. Among Spanish-speaking writers,
I came to know the works of Manuel Vázquez, Rolo Diez, Ricardo Piglia,
Paco Taibo, and many more. In America I discovered, among others, Don Westlake,
Joe Gores, Elmore Leonard, Larry Block, Martin Cruz Smith, Joseph Wambaugh,
John Grisham and Carl Hiaasen.
In Outcast, when Elliot Steil
is lost at sea and is saved by a family on a raft, the scene is very vivid.
Have you known anyone that has made the trip from Cuba to the U.S. on a raft
or did you just use your imagination for that scene?
It’s a mixture of other
people’s real-life experiences and my imagination.
Your chapters in Miami are also
very realistic. Have you spent some time there?
Although I traveled extensively
through 28 states of the Union as a teenager, the only American city I can say
I know a little is Miami. I was 14 years old the first time I spent a month
there. I went back in 1956 and 1958. Then, for 34 years I was unable to visit.
When I finally returned in 1992 I found a completely different town. But to
write acceptably about a city you don’t know well, research is the name
of the game.
Do you think that many Cubans who
come to the U.S.–as with some of the characters of Outcast–are
forced to look for work in the black market or in illegal businesses?
No, I don’t. Nevertheless,
"many" is a highly imprecise term. Most Cubans who immigrate have
relatives and friends that lend a hand and they manage to land positions in
legal businesses. Those who out of necessity or by choice turn to illegality
are a minority.
You are the vice president of the
Latin American Division of the International Association of Crime Writers (IACW).
What defines a book as a work of "crime fiction" and not just "fiction"?
We live immersed in cliches
and surrounded by artificial boundaries, many of them the result of market forces.
Crime literature, which is a broader concept than crime fiction, is as old as
literature itself. Crime probably preceded language. Some people argue that
The Odyssey could be construed as crime literature. Debatable? Yes. Don
Quixote has many chapters dealing with crime. What about Crime and Punishment
and Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth? Almost everybody I know
agrees that Chandler’s essay "The Simple Art of Murder" and his
novel The Long Goodbye are first-class contemporary literature.
All this leads me to believe
that good crime literature becomes just literature and, returning to your original
phrasing, good "crime fiction" becomes "fiction." Perhaps
if the generic concept "literature of adventure" is admitted, what
is now considered crime fiction, science fiction, children’s fiction, war
fiction, etc., could be unified under it. But the market has been segmented
to better target readers. Among works of crime fiction we have the whodunits,
thrillers, police procedurals, spy novels, etc. And what about the term "fiction"
itself? Many fictional titles are firmly rooted in reality. I presume that right
now some American author is writing a book about teenage crime in an American
school. Fictional? Give me a break. Even in some of the wildest science fiction,
basic human nature is projected realistically.
Some of the main female characters
in the book are feminists. Is this true of many Cuban women?
I would estimate that among
educated, professional women between the ages of 20 and 40, the majority believe
they should be allowed the same rights, power and opportunities as men, and
be treated in the same way. This is an important social group; around 60 percent
of the highly qualified workforce in Cuba are women. Between 41 and 60, those
who share that conceptualization are the minority. After 60, the percentage
of feminists is low. But among less educated women, most of whom are housewives
economically dependent on husbands, lovers, fathers or brothers, the number
is extremely low.
Is it difficult for Cuban writers
to get published in the U.S.?
Extremely so. The insurmountable
hurdle seems to be language. American publishing houses won’t even open
a manuscript by an unknown writer in Spanish. It’s practically impossible
to find a good translator willing to risk that his work may not yield him a
penny. So I am a privileged person for being able to write in English.
Is being a writer a satisfying profession
Absolutely. My only regret
is the time lost. Sometimes I look back to the many years I spent in an office
poring over figures, submitting reports which changed nothing, and I wish I
had been writing fiction instead. By now I would have produced twice as many
books. But it was impossible to earn a livelihood from writing only.
Are you able to support yourself
as a writer, or do you have to work other jobs as well?
Very few writers in Cuba,
maybe in all Latin America, are able to support themselves and their families
just by writing. Most have to juggle other jobs and become journalists-translators,
salesmen-office workers, editors-interpreters, what have you. I am not the exception
to the rule.
In your response to an earlier question,
you said that the book was in part about how "social environments shape
the lives of the book’s characters." How do you think your writing–subject
matter, style, etc.–would be affected if you lived in the U.S. instead
As regards style, which
in literature is more a matter of form than of substance, I guess I would be
open to new influences, fresh ideas. Languages are incredibly beautiful and
building a book word by word is esthetically very pleasing to me, after
I have dealt with essence. As regards subject matter, I don’t know. Like
all other mature people, I have developed a set of principles and beliefs that
probably wouldn’t vary. I am against injustice, political repression and
arbitrary rule in any country; against terrorism, war and discrimination by
reason of politics, sex, race and religion; against any economic order that
shows flagrant disregard for the underprivileged. My writing would always be
determined by these and other convictions.
Your publisher Johnny Temple told
me that you have worked with American writers while they were traveling in Cuba.
I saw that you are acknowledged in Martin Cruz Smith’s new novel, Havana
Bay. What sort of work do you do with these writers?
I would prefer the term
"collaboration" to "work." Work implies collecting money
for what you do; as a matter of principle I have never charged a cent to American
colleagues visiting Cuba. Usually I interpret for them, suggest books for reference
purposes, tell them the most relevant facts of Cuban history, drive them around,
act as a guide, have them over for drinks and supper, that sort of thing.
You’re coming to the U.S. to
visit family and promote Outcast. You also mentioned that after 1958
you were not permitted to visit the U.S. for 34 years. Is it difficult to get
a travel visa these days? Was it frustrating to have your travel be so limited
during those years?
Excuse me, but I didn’t
say I wasn’t permitted to visit the U.S. I said I was unable to. There’s
a difference. I never applied for a visa during those years. In fact, I had
a nonimmigrant visa valid for unlimited applications for admission into your
country until Dec. 28, 1962. After diplomatic relations between Cuba and the
U.S. were severed, it was extremely difficult to travel to America, particularly
if you were a young or middle-aged government bureaucrat who just wanted to
visit and return. Many relatives I love left Cuba permanently. Some of them
passed away while living in Miami or California. I wanted to attend their funerals,
of course, but it was impossible to get a Cuban government permit or a U.S.
visa on the usual short notice that escorts death.
Since 1990, when I became
a full-time writer, it has been easier to get a visa, even though it’s
a lengthy process that takes a couple of months. A letter of invitation from
some American institution is the first step. Next the Cuban government has to
issue an exit permit. Then a form has to be filed at the Consular Section of
the U.S. Office of Interests in Havana. This form is sent to Washington and
three or four weeks later the person learns if the visa has been granted or
At the end of Outcast, Steil
has food, clothing, shelter and possibly a small fortune. Do you think he is
therefore living the American dream?
Define American dream. If
it is limited to the material side of life, yes. But I suspect that this dream
includes spiritual values too. Martin Luther King had a dream and it was not
materialistic. I know people in your country who, materially speaking, have
everything a human being can hope for. Yet some of them long for spiritual values
that, in their perception, are fading in America. I don’t know; I don’t
live there. But if your dream encompasses cultural assimilation, I doubt that
a man of Elliot Steil’s background and age would live the full American
Outcast takes an evenhanded
look at Cuban and American societies. In the novel, set in 1994-’95, Cuba
is economically starved, with ideologically rigid authority figures. The U.S.
seems to be drowning in materialism. Is there a middle ground?
I am not well-traveled enough
to answer this question. Let’s give the floor to Fidelia, who in Chapter
Four of Outcast asks: "I wonder if there’s a human settlement
on this planet where you can live a normal life. Sweden? Switzerland? Maybe
it exists in one of those countries you almost never hear about, like New Zealand,
Norway, or Denmark–a place where you can make a decent living, own a little
house, and speak your mind without fearing reprisals. It would also be a place
where you are properly educated in your youth, decently cared for in the end,
and get taxed for it all in between. If you don’t pay taxes for what you
are given, you become either a parasite or a slave to power-hungry demagogues
and faceless bureaucrats."
Tensions between the U.S. and Cuba
have been easing. They talk about "baseball diplomacy." Are you optimistic
about the relationship?
Not in the next 10 to 15
years. I am too far removed from the centers of power in both countries to really
know. However, I suspect there is no such thing as "baseball diplomacy"
between Cuba and the U.S. This is just a meaningless term coined by American
journalism. From where I sit, it looks as if neither side wants to budge. One
advocates a multiparty political system, a free press, a strong private sector.
The other is implementing exactly the opposite and postulates that no foreign
power has the right to tell another how it should rule itself. Both nations
have changed enormously since 1959. Both have made serious errors. It’s
a very complex issue that, like all major problems, needs to find a middle ground,
for Cuba to be denied access to the biggest single market in the world, which
is only 90 miles away, is extremely harmful.