Fiction Map of the World – Cuba

by Travelbag on 09 September 2014, 13:09PM

When you think of Cuba your mind shoots to cigars, Castro and communism, but the second largest island in the Caribbean also has a deep literary, cinematic and musical history for us to explore.

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Essential Holiday Reading

For holiday reading I’m going to recommend a book commonly held as the classic Cuban novel: Cecilia Valdés by Cirilo Villaverde (sometimes published in English under Angel Hill). Initially appearing in 1839 in Havana its final and most revered edition was published in 1882, so significantly after its initial completion. A story of great melodrama and with deep characterisation set against a backdrop of social issues it evokes themes of love, revenge and race relations to truly capture the social interactions between the varying groups of Cubans of the time. This alone marks it out as a truly significant novel in Cuban history and it is no surprise it is regarded as the greatest Cuban novel of the 19th century and its characters are regarded as the archetypal Cuban character portraits in Cuban literature.

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Notable Cuban Books

It is difficult to find English translations of many great novels by Cuban writers as they are predominantly written in Spanish and haven’t yet transcended into the English-speaking worlds consciousness, but they’re there if you look hard enough. Havana Fever is the first in the Four Seasons series by Leonardo Paduro and might just see you buying the full set about the cop who’d rather be a writer Mario Conde. For true explorations of prose style look to Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier or Paradiso by the poet José Lezama Lima. Two more novels by Carpentier – The Kingdom of the World and The Lost Steps – are also exceptional.An example of a novel written in English is the Pulitzer Prize winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. We shouldn’t forget arguably the most famous novel written in and set in Cuba; The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. It contributed greatly to his award of the Novel Prize for Literature in 1954.

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Notable Cuban Authors

Cuban literature has generally held important figures from around the early 19th century, including many poets. From the aforementioned political activist Cirilo Villaverde (Cecilia Valdes) to the poet José Martí right through to Eliseo Alberto (Caracol Beach) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Tristes Tigres – published in English as Three Trapped Tigers) there is a common thread throughout most (though not all) Cuban writers and their work: politics. Given the history of unrest and revolution involving both Spain, the U.S.A and eventually Fidel Castro and the communist party this is no surprise. Many authors have fled their native Cuba to avoid censorship, significant writers across several fields such as Zoe Valdes, Leonardo Paduro, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Antonio Rodriguez Salvador to name but a few.

Notable Cuban Films

Around only eighty films were produced in pre-revolutionary Cuba, most notably La Virgen de la Caridad (The Virgin of Charity). Since the revolution Cuba has produced many globally acclaimed films. Post-revolution there has been a boom in Cuban cinema, critically acclaimed films such as Memories of Underdevelopment, a unique character study during a time of social change, or Lucia, a film split between three different time periods in Cuban history. There’s also Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) about homosexuality and the themes of intolerance and acceptance. Other well-known films include Madagascar by Fernando Perez (not the animated film!), La Ultima Cena (The Last Supper) and La Primera Carga al Machete (The First Charge of the Machete). Cuban cinema has suffered hard times through economic hardship but there has been a consistent quality and diversity throughout even the more barren years. On top of this there’s also the Havana Film Festival held annually that is predominant in Latin American cinema and features a great number of new films during its run.

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Essential Holiday Listening

For holiday listening I’m going to recommend a collaborative effort that was put together by Juan de Marcos González and Ry Cooder with the help of many Cuban musicians. The album was entitled Buena Vista Social Club and took its inspiration from the Havana club of the same name, the popularity of which peaked in the 1940s and 50s. Engaging a wide variety of musical styles and instruments it encompasses the vast array of influences that Cuban music has provided. As well as being the highest selling Cuban album of all time it is also included on the famous Rolling Stone magazine 500 greatest albums of all time; one of only two albums produced in non-English speaking countries to appear. Its mixture of instrumental and vocal tracks are a combination of relaxing, charming and effortlessly cool making it perfect holiday listening.

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Notable Cuban Musicians

With African and European styles fusing over the years, there have been many different musical influences to affect the distinctive Cuban style which in turn has gone on to influence the development of jazz, salsa and many more genres. Most music to come out of Cuba today can trace its influences to older traditions, most notably the Buena Vista Social Club. Cuba has introduced the world to many talented musicians, Gloria Estefan being the biggest selling crossover star to be born in Cuba. She’s sold around 100 million records worldwide. There’s also Arturo Sandoval, a supremely gifted jazz musician who primarily played the trumpet and worked alongside everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Frank Sinatra to Justin Timberlake. Having already mentioned salsa it’s appropriate to mention Celia Cruz, known as ‘the queen of salsa’ she was recording consistently from the late 1940s to the early 2000s. Other well-known Cuban musicians include the bandleader and composer Pérez Prado, the jazz musician Machito and the double-bassist and composer Cachao.

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