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Posted May 01, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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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.

All you have to do is email your name and address to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) , and answer the following question:

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

  1. Follow up post #1 added on March 27, 2004 by Debbie Owens

    European energy consultant

  2. Follow up post #2 added on March 27, 2004 by Debbie Owens

    European energy consultant

  3. Follow up post #3 added on April 26, 2004 by Desiree Llaneza

    Isadora Tattlinís husband (Nick) was an Energy Consultant for a multinational corporation: Energy Consulting International (gas, electric, geothermal, hydro, solar, wind: everything but nuclear heíll tell you how to produce it in the most efficient way), who moves stays a few years in one country, then moves to another.

  4. Follow up post #4 added on August 26, 2007 by seattlecuba

    My girlfriend picked this up while I was in Cuba last month for the seventh time over ten years, and passed it on to me.  I’ve only gotten to page 40, but it’s going to pain me to keep reading.  Having lived in Cuba with Cubans (and not servants, like Mrs. Tattlin) I know what the Cuba reality is like, and in reading “Cuba Diaries”, it’s really less a portrait of Cuba as it is a portrait of a wealthy suburban American housewife outside of her comfort zone.  Plus, there are a few things that reek suspicious: I can understand using a pseudonym for herself and the people she works with, but why not bother telling us which country her husband is from?  She says is “small and obscure” where the people are wealthy enough but blatantly racist.  Is it Liechtenstein? San Marino?  Estonia? Since she brings it up so much, why not tell us?  She also omits when exactly she’s in Cuba -a major detail when describing the condition of decay (Cuba 1993 is much different than ‘97, which is much different than 2007).  She also doesn’t mention much of the embargo, merely in passing, and the hostile policies and rhetoric of the US government.  At least at page 40.  I’ll let you know if she does so later, if I finish.

  5. Follow up post #5 added on February 26, 2009 by JRVJ

    I’m finishing this book right now.

    I would say Ms. Tattlin was in Cuba from 1994 to 1998, because her “4th schoolyear” coincides with the Pope’s 1998 visit.

    As to why she refers to her husband’s country as X_______, I would think that’s because it’s easy to figure out who they are if she gives the name of the country (frankly, I doubt very much that her husband is actually an energy consultant.  It would be too easy to figure out who she is if that’s what she does).

  6. Follow up post #6 added on October 22, 2012 by Karen M with 1 total posts

    More of a mirror than an insight into Cuba

    Cuba Diaries does not give any useful insight into the politics or history of the island, but that wasn’t what the book was meant to be. It’s an insight into how wealthy ex pats live amidst grinding poverty and hardship, with a few snippets of gossip added in. Reading the narrative, it became very apparent to me that relations between Tattlin’s family and Cubans, especially those in their employment, are hugely distorted by inequality of income and status. Judging from the book, Tattlin’s family were fair employers, but I’ve heard some horror stories from Cuban maids, cooks and gardeners about the authoritarian tactics of ex pat employers.
    I lived in Cuba for six years (certainly not as a wealthy ex pat). My own account of what life was like for me (“Living Inside the Revolution - An Irish woman in Cuba”) is an attempt to be honest about what the Revolution means in terms of ordinary people’s experiences. I believe that it may be the closest any non Cuban writer has come to a written account of the daily challenges faced by contemporary Cubans.

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