Cuba is a country of contradictions. The rich, sensual colours of the Caribbean mix with Iron Curtain austerity on this fascinating island. It’s a place where—to the outsider—society seems to have ground to a halt at the end of the 1950s.
Once majestic buildings packed to the ceilings with terrazzo tiles, marble staircases and Corinthian columns are now rendered as dusty living museum pieces, filled with monstrous mid-20th century appliances, peeling paint and grassy protrusions from every gutter.
Rotund, shapely old Buicks and other assorted American machines stand on street corners, their period fins and chrome glistening in the sweltering Caribbean sunlight.
Inside the stores, dusty display cases replete with advertising from another age stand almost empty, save for the odd fruits of local labour (an aluminium cutlery set, a doll in Cuban national dress, a sandwich-maker in a crushed, faded box). As diarist Isadora Tattlin discovers, the unchanged nature of these sun-bleached stores and street fronts reminds her of her own childhood in 1950s California.
Tattlin is the wife of a European energy consultant, bringing up her two children in a rambling, distantly grand house in Havana—the bustling-yet-weary capital of Fidel Castro’s socialist outpost.
Over four years in the early ‘90s she keeps a diary of her experiences with food shortages, local characters (sometimes lively, but many often indifferent) and the day-to-day surprises this rich culture has in store for her and her family. She even entertains Castro himself at a dinner party.
As a country that has long fascinated me, I was looking forward to reading this memoir, written during a time in Cuba where capitalism and communism were colliding. The Cuban dictatorship was beginning to wake up to the economic advantages open to them, yet still (as one local puts it) refusing to acknowledge that they had “made a mistake”.
The book delivers some deftly descriptive observations of the Cuban way of life and offers several glimpses into what has largely been a closed society for half a century.
Yet Tattlin often appears as not much more than an itchy-footed would-be philanthropist. Her diary entries often seem too flamboyant—as if she was always planning to publish it, and was just using the plight of the Cubans she comes into contact with as more fodder for her end result. Sometimes her writing smacks of the privileged well-to-do wife “roughing it” with the masses, but still remaining politely distant.
Of course this is quite a cynical view that should probably be suppressed, but one that was always there in the back of my mind whilst reading Tattlin’s work.
Overall, however, Cuba Diaries definitely opens the window on a fascinating and despairing nation during a time of great social upheaval. If Cuba is a place you long to visit, it will no dount prove an interesting read.
Enter nzoom’s Cuba Diaries competition
If you’ve always been fascinated by the complexities and contradictions of modern-day Cuba, you can win your very own copy of Cuba Diaries to read.
What does Isadora Tattlin’s husband do for a living? (The answer can be found in the above article).
Entries close on May 15, and the 10 winners will be notified via email.
Title: Cuba Diaries
Author: Isadora Tattlin
Publisher: Bantam Books
Publication date: April, 2003
Recommended retail price: $26.95