Habanera by Teresa Dovalpage
Reviewed by STEPHEN KARL

Timing is everything.
What’s old is new again.
The present is written by the past.

Cliches are easy. Struggle is not. That too sounds like a cliche. It’s hard for those of us who have not experienced true struggle to appreciate those that have.  Again, perhaps another clicheor at least trite.  Habanera, a short novel by Havana-born Teresa Dovalpage, is neither trite nor cliched. It reads as an honest story of an at times middle class, at times struggling, always in flux young girl named Longina growing up with family and friends in Fidel’s Cuba, or “you-know-who” as you know who is more often referred by the diverse platter of characters in Dovalpage’s story.  Habanera is also often funny, silly at times, and thick with rich metaphor and wit just enough but not too much that it bogs down the pace, like the “fleshless tenants” of the cemetery; “Tia Rita’s nightgown will make a good sail...And your bony legs can double as oars;” “Ma mere, the chameleon, moved from white to blue collar like a reversible coat, changing manners as she changed perfumes;” “The bittersweet taste of chocolate still lingered in my mouth when remorse overcame me.” 

It’s also hard not to frame a review of this short novel without thinking about the current, seemingly overnight success nations in Africa are having overthrowing dictatorial regimes. Combine that with the end of Cuba’s “parallel-market” communist allies Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Bulgaria that actually occur during the course of the narrative without feeling for the real people these fictional characters in late 1980s/early 1990s Cuba are stand-ins for and realize that two decades later not too much has really changed for them.  When you step away it hits you that all their optimism about change has been, in retrospect, futile.  That’s why it feels so cliched, or is it trite, when I put to pen to paper to justify how good Habanera is and how it reminds me of the battles humans still fight against oppression.

So maybe that’s the thing about the characters in Habanera while one is immersed in the story: You don’t feel sorry for them because for the most part they don’t feel sorry for themselves.  Sure, many pine for the end of “This,” the perfectly abrupt four-letter word used in frustration among all the Cubans not on board with you-know-who’s regime.  And you wish that you knew the future now roughly 20 years later, hanging over the story like one of the thick clouds of metaphors Dovalpage applies so well,  turned out differently.  That aside, one otherwise appreciates the story for perhaps what it really is about: a little girl growing up.

Young Longina doesn’t pity herself as much as she strives to make things better.  She devours books like el Kempis and Animal Farm even more so when told they are ideologically deviant, later on prefers literature over television against her best friend’s suggestion, and never thinks highly of Fidel even as some in her family push towards communism compliance because it might be easier that way.  Whether it’s developing from a dependant little girl that threw up, or “guaed” after every meal to a truly “developed” senorita that prepares cafe con leche for her own dependant mother, Longina  learns to carve her own path even as “This” doesn’t seem to allow one to, like when it indirectly forces a doctor to work as a hamburger fry cook to make money or directly sends a magazine editor to a factory line as punishment for seeking a way out.  At one time or another Longina stands up to her friends, her parents, her country, her maybe alive-maybe dead great-grandmother or great-grandmother’s spirit. 

Dovalpage also seems to use Longina’s maturation to convey one of the more interesting dynamics at work in Habanera: that of male versus female.  The male-female dynamic gets introduced early, and clearly: on the second page, Longina’s father is introduced as “...the last monkey in the family zoo. He had neither voice nor vote.”  Soon after, Ponciano, the neurasthenia-stricken grandfather, is essentially banished to his urine smelling bedroom, either forced or on his own, but it doesn’t matter because his role in Longina’s life is marginalized.  Longina is raised by her grandmother, later her mother, and then by her “developed” friends at school.  As Longina says on page 123 “I lived in a matriarchal society where men were like paper cutouts, more decorative than useful and replaceable at any time.” Except of course for you-know-who.

The characters are what makes Habanera one of those novels you are excited to pick up after each time you have to put it down, itching to see where this vicarious family goes next, trying not to think about the still-reality of “This.”  Ponciano, the stubborn grandfather, lover of French culture, his urinal, and Voice of America radio; Muneca, the sassy grandmother, who paraded her confidence around town in the form of her “giant heart, colossal ass and curves to match;” Papucho, the drunk father; Ma Mere, the chameleon-like mother; Dr. Orozco,  the steadfast you-know-who supporter; Sonia, the flippant “experienced” teenager at La Lenin school; Alex, Longina’s sweet Russian-named boyfriend.  Others matriculate in and out of the story, none as permanent as Fidel’s strongholdthe iron fist that keeps the story grounded in Cuba even as characters come to and from Miami, Spain, Canada. 

Humor works nicely throughout the story to move along the narrative and also to remind the reader that even though many loathe “This”, there’s still life to be enjoyed, perhaps even just as a metaphorical middle-finger to Fidel just as Longina’s family gave Barbarita, the neighborhood comecandela and informateuror communist snitchthe literal middle-finger as they drove away when moving from San Anastasio Street to San Carlos III Avenue, clearly stated  in 1987.

And that actually leads to one of only two gripes about Habanera.  One is a bit of a time lapse, or rushing of the years from 1987 to 1990, during which there’s a mention of Adidas tennis shoes, Levi’s jeans and Florida Marlins t-shirts arriving in Cuba, which would be great except the Florida Marlins did not start playing until 1993 and were not even granted a franchise until 1991.  It’s a small but annoying gripe--and probably only noticeable to a hardcore baseball fan, which oddly enough, would be many Cubans.

The other gripe is that the author uses the obvious ominous foreshadow device a few too many times, either at the end of chapters or at the beginning or end of a major family event, like on page 30 “It was a party doomed from the start, when the cracks that would finally erode the family began to appear;” then page 35 “That was, I recognized later, the beginning of the end;” or page 131 “I didn’t know what to think. Was our little world going to be divided, our private map reorganized too?”  The story has enough natural foreshadowing events like the Category Four Hurricane, which sweeps through starting on page 44, the emergence of Suchel, the type of bourgeois-esque spa that became acceptable for a period, and transformation of “dollar-zone” easy shopping areas, which catered to the wealthy and tourists and convinced even those staunchest supporters in the novel that although Cuba claimed it was communist, there was plenty of classism, it was embedded in the very fabric of the system.  And still is.
STEPHEN KARL is a graduate of Ithaca College and earned a master's degree from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  He lives in San Francisco with his wife and works as a business writer up near wine country.