Reviewed by Charlotte Whittle
The question of whether to stay or to leave is central to the lives of almost all of the characters in A Corner of the World, Mylene Fernández Pintado’s first book-length work in English translation. Trained as a lawyer, Fernández-Pintado is known in Cuba for her novels and short stories, for which she received the Italo Calvino Prize in 2012, and the David short story prize in 1998. Published in Cuba in 2011 and written between 2006 and 2008, the novel comes just after the end of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” the economic crisis endured on the island in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s set in a Havana in which the dollar circulates freely, tourism has taken off and brought with it new sources of revenue and tensions, capitalism inhabits the edges of everything, and nearly all the characters are hustling along on an improvised path of survival.
Marian, a shy professor of literature, a homebody living among the sundry possessions bequeathed to her by her mother, embarks on a stormy relationship with a young writer, when she is asked to preface his first book. Fifteen years her junior, the passionate, arrogant Daniel upends the routine existence Marian has retreated into in her grief, forcing her to reexamine her quiet life, modest ambitions, and her attachment to her home. Marian’s story is as much a story of her relationship to Cuba as it is a love story. She must choose between the excitement of an unexpected affair, and the comfort of a safe, stable existence, but she must also decide whether to leave Cuba or to remain there. Although the novel is a tale of love and loss, at its most interesting it is a book about geography, departures, reconciliations, and finding a corner of the world to call one’s own.
Dick Cluster renders Marian’s confiding, conversational voice into a flexible and engaging English prose that fully does justice to Fernández-Pintado’s appealing narrator. By turns chatty and buoyant, searching and lyrical, Marian offers a glimpse into a contemporary Cuba that is partially opened, half-changed. Everyone here, from Marian, to her current and former lovers, co-workers, and friends, responds uniquely to the pressure exerted on every inhabitant of the island, whether their gaze is turned outward across the ocean, or inward toward what ties them to their home. To locals, Marian tells us, travel is “the golden apple of our unending national desire” (84). She introduces us to types who embody a plethora of approaches to the central question of whether to stay or leave. Nowhere is this livelier than in Marian’s wonderfully comic account of her friend Lorena’s former husbands: the domino player who leaves for Miami on a drunken bender never to be heard from again, and the morose psychoanalyst who must escape the Cuban sun in order to find happiness. Marian’s description of this second husband and his departure embodies the zest and amusement evident in so many of her accounts of the foibles of those around her:
He enrolled in a course in Lacanian Anguish which then became his chief preoccupation. Any attempt by Lorena to make him laugh was treated as a boycott of his central concerns. He sought out communication with his fellow anguishees around the globe and became fascinated by the high suicide rate of Scandinavia. Finally he got in touch with a Norwegian philosopher who responded with some interest to the experiments he carried out on himself. The Norwegian man proposed a trip to the fjords to see how he would react to an absence of sun. He went, his depression lifted, he fell in love with the Norwegian, and off they went to Australia to go surfing so as to demonstrate the importance of physical exercise in the freeing of endorphins and the maximization of libido (30-31).
Lorena’s husband P.T. is different. He haunts the spaces of travel while never leaving the island, and becomes a sort of philosopher on the varying fates of those who leave. Obsessed with travel since his family abandoned him for the U.S., he seems to seek to depart, but as Marian explains, “the curious fact was that his restlessness died down as soon as he reached the shores of the endless beach that surrounds us. It was enough for him to be at the borders, the edges, the limits where farewells and welcomes take place” (33). Lorena herself keeps her feet firmly on home ground. Traveling, she argues, will turn her into “just an anxious pre-traveler.” “Everybody here is more or less okay ‘til they catch that first goddamn plane” (119). Fernández-Pintado, who herself seems to have sought a compromise by living half the year in Cuba and half in Switzerland, is at her best when she presents us with this proliferation of voices and variations on the subject of home, and the question of where to be.
The lens she focuses on the way the people of Havana have shaped their lives to adapt to conditions is also well poised. We learn, through Marian’s gossipy account of the stories of her neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, of the vicissitudes suffered through economic uncertainty and political upheaval, the ways some have foundered and others have thrived. We follow the progress of social climbers such as her former mother in law, and those, such as her ex-husband, who have benefited from the partial opening up of Cuba. But dependency on foreign currency has its dark side, as can be seen in Daniel’s encounter with the Spanish women he claims have offered him a scholarship, and in the source of the money Daniel’s friend Adrián uses to buy gifts for his friends.
If the novel acts as an informal sociology of sorts, it also offers us fragments of the recent material and economic history of Cuba. When we first meet Marian she is having her car examined, and it is not just any car, but a 1970 Moskvitch, which, as the mechanic explains, was “produced by the youth of the Leninist Komsomol on Sundays of ‘volunteering’” (12). And here we begin to suspect that what we are reading is a letter from Cuba to those abroad, since Marian tells us the mechanic’s words are “what is generally repeated here” (12). There is at play a canny awareness of potential foreign audiences, and of the marketability of certain popular images of ‘cubanness’, since what is one of the most common images of Cuba that comes to mind for so many of us, if not a charmingly vintage car kept on the road by Cuba’s famously resourceful mechanics? The car, “while inadequate by international standards, was satisfactory by our local ones” (11). But the author isn’t marketing kitsch by writing about the Moskvitch; Fernández-Pintado is too self-aware, she fictionalizes the dynamic we would be tempted to identify here. When Marian recounts the deals offered to her for the precious car, she tells us “Another would-be partner offered to recondition the vehicle into a luxury rental that would capitalize on the nostalgic appeal of the 70s, an epoch he said was much in vogue among the European visitors” (47).
Marian is at pains to describe life in Havana in contrast to life abroad, to detail the peculiarities of life on the island. Cuba is defined by its difference from life on the outside, whether the outside is Mexico, the United States, or Europe. The duality of here and there is present in every episode, and she is constantly telling us that “in this country,” “on our island…” or “here” things are done in a certain way. The faraway Elsewhere is continually present as a silent Other. Marian never tells us to whom she is writing, but in her portrait of life on the island, she seems to be writing a letter to someone abroad, or even a guidebook to Cuban society. Indeed, letters and guidebooks feature as kinds of writing that can be sent out from the island, or reach it from abroad, achieve a connection between here and there. Sergio survives hard economic times by writing love letters for girls to send to their foreign suitors, and Adrián brings Marian a guidebook to Madrid, to help her feel closer to her departed lover. Daniel believes his writing talent assures him success in Spain. Marian pretends to be writing a novel, to give her mother something to live for. She pens vignettes of scenes from the city to collaborate with the absent Daniel, but they end up as good as postcards tossed into a void. She had hoped that literature would be “a charm that would ward off departures and solitude” (128). The act of writing may or may not have the power to help us overcome our material or geographical circumstances. Perhaps more powerful than anything penned by its characters is the novel itself, a love letter to the city of Havana in all its chaos, complexity, and beauty.
Fernández-Pintado, Mylene. A Corner of the World. Tr by Dick Cluster. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014.