Autobiography of a City
By Alfredo José Estrada
275 pp. $24.95
Alfredo José Estrada's Havana explores the puzzle of his love affair with a city that has haunted him since he left it as a 1-year old in 1961. Despite remembering "nothing of it," Estrada claims that his life-long ambition was "to hold Havana in the palm of my hand." Nostalgia without personal memory is impossible, but Estrada's book brims with the inherited nostalgia of his family's memories.
In search of the city's allure, Estrada used several return trips to the island after a 30-year absence to try to unravel the enigma of his beloved Havana. The resulting book is a captivating travelogue, even if its substance fails to live up to its prose. Visitors to the island should take it along to read during their trip, to learn, for instance, that the "spacious courtyard where carriages once entered" the Palacio O'Farrill, an "exquisitely restored early-nineteenth-century mansion" in Old Havana that's been transformed into a boutique hotel, is "now the breakfast room."
The book reads like a stone skipping across the surface of the Almendares River. Estrada begins the story of Havana with the native Tainos and right away hops to the Spanish Conquistadores, marauding pirates, British Red Coats, the history of cigars, the sugar business, the slave trade, the wars of independence, José Martí, the sinking of the Maine, the Platt Amendment, Ernest Hemingway, Alejo Carpentier, the Tropicana nightclub, Fulgencio Batista, Desi Arnaz, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It is too much history to tell in a mere 275 pages, but this is not a history book.
Estrada points out that "the Havana of the 1600s would be recognizable today." The old city escaped the development blight of such cities as Lima and Caracas because the private sector was virtually eliminated by the Cuban Revolution. "La Habana Vieja," he writes, "was preserved like an exotic insect in a drop of amber."
The contemporary Havana that Estrada describes is the Havana of landmarks, restaurants and hotels familiar to most visitors, yet the Havana where more than 2 million habañeros live and work remains a mystery to him. Although the author calls it an autobiography "told from the city's point of view," it is really a tale about Havana told by a Cuban-American visitor who would love to get to know her better. ·
José Pertierra was born in Havana. He is an attorney in Washington, D.C.