Excerpt from Havana by Mark Kurlansky, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Subtropical Delirium

by Mark Kurlansky

Havana by Mark Kurlansky X
Havana by Mark Kurlansky
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2017, 272 pages
    Mar 2018, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Barbara Bamberger Scott
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Print Excerpt


Todo el mundo tiene una ciudad distinta en la cabeza.
Everybody has a different city in his head.

— Edmundo Desnoes on Havana,
in Inconsolable Memories, 1965

There is a great deal of disagreement about Havana, partly because in Havana disagreeing is a way of life. But most everyone agrees that it is like no other city on earth. How did Havana become so different (though not as different as Columbus thought when he reported that there was a place called Avan, where "the inhabitants are born with tails")?

Historians point to one uprising or another revolt that shaped the city but in truth it is change itself that has given Havana its character. It has had a history of upheaval and change like no other place. Change is one of the fundamental conditions here.

To start with, Havana was founded three times in three different places.

After Christopher Columbus in 1492 declared the island of Cuba "the most beautiful that eyes have ever seen," he sent an emissary to talk to the locals, who he thought were havana Chinese. Columbus didn't have anyone with him who actually spoke Chinese, so he sent someone who spoke Arabic, reasoning that he was at least some kind of Asianist. There is some evidence that Columbus knew that he was not in Asia but it is not clear why he thought an Arab speaker might be helpful.

Not much is known of the original inhabitants of the area, the Tainos. Once Columbus acknowledged that they weren't Chinese, he noted in his diary that they seemed to be "good people" and would make excellent servants. He kidnapped a few to bring back to his sponsors in Spain.

In 1511, the Spanish sent Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar to Cuba with three hundred men for what the Spanish called conquest and what today is called genocide. Few Tainos survived. According to legend, the Taino leader, Hatuey, later honored in Havana by a popular brand of beer, was strapped to a pole on a pile of wood for burning. Threatened with painful death, he refused to reveal where the island's gold was, most probably because there was none. Then the Spanish offered him a cross and told him that if he accepted the Christian God, he would go to heaven. According to the story, Hatuey asked if Christians went to heaven and the Spanish assured him that they did. Hatuey's last words before they lit the fire were "If Christians go to heaven, I do not want to go."

One reason for speculation that this often-repeated story is not true is that it so clearly resembles Habanero humor. Habaneros love stories that are told at the change expense of people in charge, always starting with a soft, anecdotal setup and ending with a biting short punch line. The Hatuey story is like the popular "Pepito" jokes of Cuba today, which are usually about Fidel Castro, commonly referred to as "Fidel." Indeed, the story may be the founding Pepito joke. A more recent example:

When Castro was trying to prevent Havana from becoming overcrowded, he proposed moving new arrivals from Oriente Province back to where they had come from. Pepito suggested to him that they provide three hundred buses and a Mercedes.
"What is the Mercedes for?" Castro asked.
"You, Comandante." (Castro himself was from Oriente.)

On July 25, 1514, Velázquez sent forth one of his lieutenants, Pánfilo de Narváez, to found a town to be called San Cristóbal, since they were setting out on San Cristóbal Day. According to Bartolomé de Las Casas (remembered today as the conquistador who documented the genocide of the Tainos), Pánfilo was a very large, redheaded man who was not only exceptionally brutal, even for that crowd, but also unusually stupid. So the evidence is that Havana was founded by a moronic thug.

Excerpted from Havana by Mark Kurlansky. Copyright © 2017 by Mark Kurlansky. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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