Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is a brilliant, intense mystery where the past resurfaces in the present to suggest new possibilities for the future, amidst growing tension and constantly subverted expectations.
When the city and everything around you is a shambles, the best course of action is to build something, however small, something that will bring back the taste of the word future to your mouth. (p.227)
The way Karla Suárez generates tension and intrigue from the intangible is masterful. This is in many ways a detective story where the psychological twists and intrigues supersede any kind of actual clues or evidence, of which there are few, and it works a treat.
In this novel, our narrator and protagonist, Julia – a pseudonym, as she explains – recounts the story of a curious mystery she became caught up in. It centres on a missing document which would prove that an Italian man invented the telephone in Havana.
Julia, a maths lecturer, is drawn to the story of the inventor Antonio Meucci for the historic and scientific justice it would mean if his claim could be vindicated and he posthumously recognised. It soon becomes clear, however, that she and Euclid – her friend, mentor, accomplice and former lover – are not the only ones aware of the document and its significance.
Everything was a mess of random and premeditated events. (p.184)
Loyalties are tested, alliances forged, eroded and remade as the elusive document draws a small cast of characters into its orbit. Along with Julia and Euclid, there is Leonardo, an author who thinks his novel about Meucci will be a masterpiece, Ángel, who has the unique privilege of living alone, and Barbara, a tourist from Italy.
Their lives are entangled in a complex knot which Julia is continually trying to unravel as it becomes gradually revealed to her. While trying to get to the bottom of everything, she is prompted to muse on the nature of the universe and the order and disorder of all things. There are times when she feels in control, while at others as if she is being controlled or as if there is no logic to anything at all. Seemingly subtle movements are capable of turning everything on its head, which she compares to the butterfly effect, but can she choose to be the butterfly?
The moments when a new angle comes into view and both Julia and, therefore, the reader suddenly have to reconsider everything are some of the novel’s strongest. Along the way we are drawn into her inner conflicts and the tension created by this and the complexity of intrigues, suppositions and rumours surrounding Meucci’s lost proof are what drive the novel at a fast pace.
I’d often felt that way in the Havana of 1993, like a hologram, a projection of myself, and I sometimes feared that if anyone reached out their hand to my body, they’d discover I didn’t exist. However, the day I learned about Meucci, it suddenly seemed like other people, the ones walking along the street around me, were the holograms. (pp.14-15)
The events take place mainly in 1993, Year Zero in Cuba, a time of existential and economic crisis, and widespread hardship for the general population. Only foreigners, like Barbara, have easy access to certain luxuries, such as rental cars, decent rum or new clothes. Ironically, the telephones are notoriously unreliable.
For Julia, the mystery is an injection of colour into her black-and-white life and she throws herself into the role of amateur sleuth enthusiastically, at times comparing herself to both Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. She approaches it scientifically, considering the variables, hypothesising and applying theories and rules to her thinking; however, in her investigations, just as is the case for many inventors, some of the biggest discoveries come at unexpected moments and while looking for something else entirely.
Numbers are mental constructions that mathematicians use in an attempt to define the properties of and relationships between everything in the universe. Authors did something similar, but with words. (p.165)
Julia is a mathematician at heart as well as by trade and feels that her field, like literature, is an attempt to make sense of the world around us. Suárez’s novel is an ode to and a reconciliation between the sciences and humanities, suggesting they have plenty in common. Julia makes this discovery as she learns the power words can have and the important role stories, even if speculative or seemingly irrelevant, can play in our lives and building connections with one another.
To mention another form of decoding, Christina MacSweeney’s elegant translation guides us through this novel with a light touch, picking and choosing the right moments for us to consider the language and when to let the story do the work. In finding the right balance of familiar and foreign, the effect is that after diving into this book, it feels strange not to look out the window and see the streets of Havana.
Julia’s ruminations on chaos theory and chance can lead us to consider another factor: fate, the title and subject of another literary gem from Charco Press.
Fate by Jorge Consiglio, translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch, is a short, meditative novel set in Buenos Aires which presents a group of characters who explore and ponder the extent to which they have agency over their own lives.
She focused on the immediate future in order to stay in control. (p.92)
As the author sets out in the note which precedes the text, the plot is deceptively simple but the heart of the novel and woven into every page is the ancient existential doubt: chance or fate?
The narrative alternates between the perspectives of Amer, a taxidermist, Marina, a meteorologist, and Karl, a musician. The latter two have a son together but their relationship appears destined to fail.
Marina begins an affair while on a work trip, which seems so inevitable to her that it is even boring; she feels she is merely performing a cliché like so many others. The issue of whether the characters own their own choices or are reading from a script is a recurring one.
…he was already fed up with grabbing the bull by the horns. (p.105)
Then there is the question mark surrounding the desire for agency. At times the characters appear to surrender themselves to fate – or chance – rather than take control of the situation, drifting from one circumstance to the next.
We might see this at play most clearly with Amer, who falls madly for a woman he sees when a friend takes him to group therapy for quitting smoking. He doesn’t question his interest in her and trusts he will see her again, even when she doesn’t show up for the next two weeks. Later, an offhand remark she makes about beekeeping could shape their future.
At other times, we can see attempts to subvert the designs of the universe, perhaps most obviously and desperately when Karl gets into a fight over nothing at a train station. Despite the randomness and needlessness of the incident – we might suggest he provokes it in order to feel something real and unexpected – there is still a sense of falseness and forcedness.
… [he] reflected on his sense of living only half a present: every one of his actions seemed incomplete. He felt debilitated by a future nostalgia. (p.31)
The beauty of this novel, enabled by a translation by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch which finds just the right tone, is that it provides no answers, but many questions. It can be reflected upon, re-read, and reconsidered. It probes and suggests but is open to varying interpretations as its central existential doubts, naturally, have no solid conclusions.
Karl, originally from Germany, is perhaps the character most troubled by the past and the future, preventing him from being a fully active participant in the present. Experience can be a trap, but also a refuge, as suggested later in the book.
He reckoned it would be bad luck to answer him after such an unpleasant dream. (p.116)
The characters appear to be pushed and pulled this way and that and their reactions to this vary. Marina, for example, seeks order through I Ching and then tarot, while Amer also shows himself to be superstitious at times.
As the book suggests, however, fate has a habit of walking like a cat, which is to say, in curved movements and not taking the most direct route. This can mean patience is rewarded, but it can also mean the arrival of surprises which have been a long time coming and that we may not always see the connections clearly.
Both these books, Havana Year Zero and Fate, further cement the reputation of Charco Press as a publisher whose logo is a trustworthy seal of literary quality. Focusing on bringing the best of Latin American literature to English-reading audiences, they continue to publish books to treasure and savour, which surprise and delight and are, above all, a pleasure to read.
Andrew McDougall was born in Glasgow and studied Portuguese and English literature at the University of Edinburgh. He has also lived in Sussex, Lisbon, Coimbra, Logroño, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Norwich, where he completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. His work has included co-translating a book by José Eduardo Agualusa and translating a chapter by Ana Cristina Silva as part of the Escape Goat project, on which he also collaborated as an editor. He translates from Portuguese and Spanish.
Havana Year Zero, Karla Suarez (Author) Christina MacSweeney (Translator) | £9.99 Charco Press 23 February 2021 | EAN/UPC 9781913867003
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Fate, Jorge Consiglio (Author) Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch (translators) | 5 March 2020 Charco Press | EAN/UPC 9781999368463
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