A childhood in a privileged household in 1950s Havana was joyous and cruel, like any other--but with certain differences. The neighbor's monkey was liable to escape and run across your roof. Surfing was conducted by driving cars across the breakwater. Lizards and firecrackers made frequent contact. Carlos Eire's childhood was a little different from most. His father was convinced he had been Louis XVI in a past life. At school, classmates with fathers in the Batista government were attended by chauffeurs and bodyguards. At a home crammed with artifacts and paintings, portraits of Jesus spoke to him in dreams and nightmares. Then, in January 1959, the world changes: Batista is suddenly gone, a cigar-smoking guerrilla has taken his place, and Christmas is cancelled. The echo of firing squads is everywhere. And, one by one, the author's schoolmates begin to disappear--spirited away to the United States. Carlos will end up there himself, without his parents, never to see his father again. Narrated with the urgency of a confession, Waiting for Snow in Havana is both an ode to a paradise lost and an exorcism. More than that, it captures the terrible beauty of those times when we are certain we have died--and then are somehow, miraculously, reborn.
The book almost lost me when the author along with other little boys, cruel as children often can be, started torturing lizards, symbolic of much to come. I expected a typical memoir but that is certainly not what I got. The writing is not linear, the author speaks to us readers directly, and frequently gives hints of what is to come, promises to tell us more later. The style is quirky and was a bit disconcerting to me until I gave myself over to the author's story.
The child, Carlos, most often refers to his father as Louis XVI, as his father claimed to be in a former life, and his mother as Marie Antoinette, although she did not claim to be a reincarnation. His father was a judge and an attorney, one of the privileged ones under Batista. Childhood in Havana is painted in pictures vibrant and astounding, family and friends all coming to life. Very little of the book deals with Carlos or his family after Carlos was separated from his brother, the only person he knew in the United States, as soon as they landed.
Some examples of the author's style of prose:
“Crotons of all kinds. Giant philodendrons. Caladiums. Flowers. Palms in all shapes and sizes. Especially royal palms, so tall, so regal. So Cuban. Palms that pierce my heart and entrails to this very day.”
“I was one of the lucky ones. Fidel couldn't obliterate me as he did all the other children, slicing off their heads over so slowly, and replacing them with fearful, slavish copies of his own. New heads held in place by two bolts, like Boris Karloff's in Frankenstein, one bolt forged from fear, the other from illusion.”
“If Adam and Eve hadn't screwed up so badly, and their children had been able to play in the Garden of Eden, they would have laughed just like we did that day, when we threw rocks at one another on the edge of the turquoise sea.”
“To understand Fidel you have to be out of your mind. To live with the memories, too, it helps to have lucid moments that others mistake for delusions.”
This lyrical memoir is written with a strange mix of philosophy, religion, symbolism, and an adult's remembrance of his childhood: family, Havana, and the politics of the day. It is serious, touching, beautiful, funny, and entertaining. I loved it.
As one who has a love of magical realism in Latin American fiction, this book is magical realism come to life as the author talks about his parents past lives as the King & Queen of France, as he sees Jesus through his dining room window and ponders the horrors of the lizards that are everywhere in Havana. Many of these images can be ascribed to memories that are hazy with time and that dwell in early childhood. Are they really memories or are they memories of what has been told in the family over and over again until they seem real? It really doesn't matter as the author's writing is so compelling that I could not put this book down.
The wide eyed wonder in which we see this marvelous world called Havana, makes us stop and wonder. Is this a memoir or novel. The writting of child like innocence is so real. How can we remember it. Of course, this is about Mr. Erie's childhood, during the 50's and 60's. So we also get to see the growing darkness and fear brought about by the great revolution brought about by Fidel Castro...and how all their lives were changed.
It will also let you see why so many Cuban's fled that beautiful island for the USA. Most hoping it would only be a temporary seperation from family and homeland. I not only understood what life was like both before and after Castro...I could actually understand the emotion he felt as a child. And now as an adult looking back upon his past. This is a great read.
The adult writing the book still resents Fidel for ruining the lives of the rich and for the many restrictions and the hard times that have impacted all Cubans since the revolution. But he's got nothing good to say about the benefits to the poor of universal health care and universal education on the island. He's also furious at the father who would not leave Cuba and who adopted a boy who abused Carlos and his brother.
Carlos seems to resent Fidel more for his long boring speeches than for the vast changes he made in Cuba, but perhaps this is what a young boy would notice the most. Of course there is some justification for Eire's loathing of Fidel - his entire world was devastated as he spent years of his American life in institutions and in foster care, until his mother finally arrived. In the US, Carlos and his family suffered through poverty, not unlike dark skinned Cubans up until Fidel came to power.
Although I am generally sympathetic to Fidel and Che, I can recognize good writing and how tough it was for this boy in those times.
The majority of this book is set in Havana where Carlos enjoys a care-free and privileged life with a thick layer of Catholicism and extended family. His father is a eccentric art-collecting judge, his mother a woman with a crippled leg due to polio and dedicated to her children. The antics of Carlos and his brother, Tony, are often hilarious but life is changing as Fidel Castro ousts President Batista on January 1 1959. Suddenly, there is gunfire in the streets, Christmas is made illegal, relatives are imprisoned, and parents are scrambling for ways to protect their children by sending them to the United States.
Eire is an absolutely beautiful writer. Filled with humor, philosophy, and a sprinkling of theology, "Waiting for snow in Havana" provides the reader with a chance to walk in the shoes of a young immigrant who was thrown into a strange new world. Eire is currently a professor of theology at Yale.
But "Waiting for Snow in Havana" also goes deeper, in some ways, than the average midlife memoir has to. Like Eire, I moved countries at a young age, although, unlike him, I've never been any sort of refugee. Even so, I found parts of this book excruciatingly difficult to read, and the author's description of the profound effect that this event had on not just his life but on his deepest self rings very true. Eire still considers him fundamentally, inalterably Cuban, and the reader can sense how the memories he includes here have sustained him throughout his life. At the same time, the rude shock of being separated from his family and culture and losing his social status also shaped his adulthood. In its last chapters, we can see that "Waiting for Snow in Havana" is much more than an exercise in upper-class nostalgia. Eire fully embraces the fact that he had to face great adversity and grow from it: he's turned his exile and the sometimes fragmentary memories he took from Cuba into a way to discover himself and who he is. This book won't suit anyone, but I suspect that lots of people who's had suffered a serious geographic dislocation at some point during their lives -- who've had to leave everything behind and move on -- will find it to be seriously inspiring testimony.