Havana was built for giant people with histrionic lives, the kinds of bygone lives pictured in the Brazilian telenovelas everybody follows. Many not-well-off Cubans with lives of lesser grandeur inhabit the crumbling mansions of former times with a casual dignity, or measured indifference to their surroundings that isn’t entirely borrowed from a different era and a higher class.
Cubans toss paper trash on the sidewalk and wouldn’t dream of walking ten feet out of their way to use a rubbish bin. I think this has to be a sign of mental health. Nothing edible or merely broken ever goes to waste here. In New York I litter, deliberately and often, to the horror of people whose electronic garbage is poisoning great swathes of West Africa. I don’t care to keep their streets clean, when they’ve replaced my hardware store, my pharmacy, my butcher shop, and my bodega with their shitty cupcake emporium, their ridiculous gelateria, their altogether repulsive campus.
The cleanest place on Earth is Singapore, and you can have it.
Kluge, speaking of the developed countries 30 years ago, said, “Ecology for us, and the rest of the world has to take our garbage.”
I am reading Simenon’s The Little Man from Archangel for the third or fourth time. It is a deft, wondrously effective novel. Simenon knew how good it was, even among his many other good novels. When Camus won the Nobel Prize for The Stranger, published the same year, Simenon said, “What, they give it to that little turd?”
Of course it’s coming, coming here, coming soon, the gathering tsunami of Our Kind of Capitalism. iPad, iPod, YouTube, Buy It, Love It, Fuck It, Dump It, Buy Another One. The people who sell all this shit say it’s what the people want, and they’re not wrong. But if the people knew what they were in for their heads would explode.
As a piece of advice, “don’t take it personally” is always useless, even vaguely insulting. The question that always needs to be asked is “according to what?” Jean-Jacques Schuhl and I routinely tell each other, when another industrious wastebasket wins the Nobel Prize, “He deserves it.”
The jinteros at Bim Bom whip out cell phones when there’s a lull in the scramble for tricks. They can’t normally afford to call Miami or Europe, so they run their minutes out texting and blabbing to each other. They mainly watch porn loops on their phone screens. The current favorite is a ridiculously large black cock pumping the cunt of a glazed-looking white woman with runny mascara and pink lipstick. The man growls, in thug-inflected English, “I’m gonna cum, I’m gonna cum, I’m gonna cum now!” He pulls out, splashes jizz on her tits, the scene restarts with no visible splice. The loop is a skeevy metaphor for the standard life of jinteros, minus all the dull transitions, which is probably why they stare at it over and over, laughing sardonically, spellbound.
“What can stop it?” A Cuban painter asked at dinner, rhetorically I assumed, pointing at a photomontage of Near Future Havana plastered with billboard adverts and buildings wrapped in logos. Yes, it’s coming. Not yet, soon.
This year, almost certainly, if this copy of Financial Times someone brought from his flight is anything to go by, the Nobel Laureate will be the wrong Murakami. Or one of the Budapest graphomaniacs. Or the recycling center in New Jersey. “Please,” Dolores said about the prize-winning memoir at the Farhardi dinner. “Everyone knows his agent wrote it for him.” “That may be,” said the fountain pen heiress, “but that necrophile sentimentality, that had to be all him.”
Yesterday a feeling of evil rolling in like fog crept up on me. I was sitting on the patio of the Nacional near the cliff edge. The world has gotten very small, I thought. For some the world is limitless, but others find it small indeed and finally crack up from claustrophobia. I suppose I was staring directly at Florida. The Caribbean looked like a stagnant pond, though the tide threw up startling plumes as it crashed on the sea wall and drenched people on the sidewalk.
“Snark,” a fabulous creature invented by Lewis Carroll, used as a word for sarcasm, criticality, even any review that falls short of mindless adulation. “Hating on” instead of hating, “hate” understood to mean any form of skepticism, dislike, or accusation of redundancy. A language of wounded birds, suddenly amplified everywhere. But as a housekeeping matter, a magazine that has outlived its better days may well hire puerile brainiacs to come up with “outliers” for nonconformists, and to write wheezy, cloying ephemera on French cuisine and child-rearing, but however ghastly these writers are, however dull and insensibly self-regarding they may be, you cannot accuse any writer, unless you really do live in Wonderland, and can make words mean anything you please, of plagiarizing himself.
A few days ago I discovered a bookstore near the Barrio Chino, plangently understocked as they all are, where I bought a Spanish edition of Sebald’s Vertigo—not without difficulty, I had only a 20 peso CUC and a very vexed clerk had to hunt resentfully for change, in the register, in the back room, in a paper bag under the counter; she finally exited the store altogether and walked two blocks to a market to break the bill. It’s an everyday problem to break anything larger than a five into smaller notes and coins, as early in the day as possible. Nobody has change, since no one has money. You sometimes have to buy things you don’t need to reduce the amount of change the vendor has to give you, or simply give up. The banks on La Rampa and the Nacional cambio run out of small bills as quickly as taxis, restaurants, open air markets, and movie houses do: the country runs on pocket change.
A man at dinner said he lives on Formentera but travels incessantly. He can’t stand being in one place. We had that in common. Others at dinner were current New Yorkers originally from Montreal and Australia, and a couple from New York living here, off a fortune from junk bonds. They had the hearty, confiding laughter of people engaged in an ongoing criminal enterprise. The current New Yorkers came to take photographs. They have been east, to Trinidad de Cuba. Today they are driving west, to Pinar del Rio. On safari, apparently.
D. disputed my idea that the convertible peso has restored a measure of national self-esteem. I said it had to have been demoralizing, in the years of the dollar economy, to use a political enemy’s currency. D. was impatient. If he sells a painting in Miami it’s paid for in dollars, but before it becomes money here, 30 percent goes missing. All right. National self-esteem is a pretty vapid concept anywhere. When I changed a lump sum for rent, I lost $70 in the process. I hoped it made someone feel better. This method of getting hard currency into the treasury, though, is probably short-sighted, more than the Argentine scheme 20 years ago that made one peso equal one dollar. It might be fractionally less slavish to be desperate for CUCs than desperate for dollars. But of course the real problem is desperation.
There is a lot of talk about DSL, and how important it is people here get it, soon. But the technology is addictive. It destroys whatever’s left of the human mind—not much, on the face of it—in the wake of the 20th century. It’s already ruined Japan, China, the US, Europe, and Scandanavia. Probably Chile, Brazil, and the Argentine, too. It will be tragic when it wrecks Cuba, turning these lovely but thwarted people into inert, unlovely robots, tweeting and Facebook friending like every oblivious twat in the universe. It never feels tragic when it happens. Just the opposite, really. But it will be.
The man from Formentera said Formentera is entirely WiFi’d. It could be that beautiful places will always offer too many real pleasures for technology to wipe them out. Maybe not. In Hydra, the year television arrived, every house suddenly sprouted an aerial. The villagers gave up their evening chess games and horseshoes in the open air. They stopped drinking ouzo in the harbor cafes at sundown. In spitting distance of the winedark sea, they stayed indoors watching reruns of Matlock.
Of course no Greek peasant or Tuscan shepherd treats his landscape as glorious and exalting. He’s part of it; it’s his. Besides, nothing lasts forever. It’s more normal to piss on a tree than take pictures of it. After leaving the dinner I flagged a taxi full of drunken prostitutes, one peso, the taxi I mean, and went to 23 and the Malecon. A jintero I know was finishing a pint. He tossed the empty bottle over the wall, where it smashed on the rocks into many glistening pieces. He sighed luxuriously and said, “Isn’t it wonderful here? With the sky, and the wind?”
Previously - In Havana
Read about legendary writer Gary Indiana in our feature story, "The Wonderful Asshole."