November 20, 2019

Tales of Cuba, up close and personal

Leila Segal is a woman of many gifts and passions. Trained as a barrister, she is today an accomplished writer, poet and photographer, a community activist in London and an advocate for the disempowered around the world. Not surprisingly, she was powerfully drawn to Cuba, where she gathered the life experiences she refracted in “Breathe: Stories From Cuba” (Lubin & Kleyner/Flipped Eye Publishing), a collection of nine luminous tales set in what she calls “a secret city — desconocida — uncharted and unknown.”

Segal shows us Cuba at street level. The Cubans and expats who find each other in the story titled “Siempre Luchando,” for example, seek out places that only Cubans know. (“Angel, take us somewhere real, the French boy said, not some tourist s—.”) Although Segal is interested in politics, she always shows us the realpolitik of intimate human relationships, too. So it is that the young man called Angel courts a French woman as a way to reach France, and when she abruptly changes her mind, he is forced to find someone else to take her place.

“In Cuba we do not have hopes and we cannot make plans,” Angel says to his new French girlfriend. “I live for today, siempre luchando — always I struggle. Every day I move, and I survive. I find a way to distract myself.  I must always be outside, find a way to forget my life, I cannot sit in my house, it makes me crazy.”

So, too, does the man called Alejandro embody the hard facts of life in Cuba in the story titled “Taxi.” He is a medical student reduced to driving a “peso” cab, a half-century-old Buick that he purchased with the proceeds from the sale of his mother’s jewelry. “Throughout the Special Period in the ’90s, when people were killing cats to eat, she had kept the jewelry safe. Some things could not be sold — no matter how hard the Yankees tried to starve them into submission. But after she died, his resolve slipped away.”  After all, “a doctor’s salary doesn’t pay enough,” and so he stays behind the wheel.

Alejandro, we learn, has lost his faith in the revolution, as well as in medicine. “If you valued your job, your home, your child’s education, you went every month to the meeting of your local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. You attended the marches in support of Fidel, waving your Cuban flag — with or without enthusiasm. If you didn’t, it was written down — your workplace kept a register — marked on your record forever.”  And yet the story turns abruptly into a morality tale when, in defiance of Cuban law, he picks up an American tourist who is supposed to use only “dollar” taxis, and she falls ill. “A-le-jan-dro — it meant protector,” Segal points out, and she shows the upwelling of courage and self-sacrifice that redeems him.

Many of the stories in “Breathe” are about love and sex, which are readily distinguishable in Segal’s rich and evocative prose. In “Luca’s Trip to Havana,” for example, we meet a philandering Italian businessman named Luca who prefers Cuban women to Europeans because “you didn’t have to play games to get them; they could take a compliment without sneering at you as if you’d offered up your soul.” Still, Luca sizes up Cuban women around his hotel according to his own harsh typology: “the prostitute, in and out in an hour; the jinetera — she’d stay for a few days, take a little money, give a little love; and the sweet heart, who would never want to leave,” because she was “probably hoping to snag a foreign husband and a better life abroad.” Yet the enchanting woman who yields to him also is willing to confront him with his own brutality and hypocrisy: “You are a coward,” she says afterward. “You have a black hole for a heart.”

We are always tempted to believe that the characters in fiction are alter egos of the author, and I suspect that Segal inhabits more than one of her own beguiling characters. Anna, the Englishwoman who narrates the story called “The Party,” for example, also is a visitor to Cuba and an observer who wants to experience Cuban life outside the tourist bubble. She is baffled by the conversations between her Cuban boyfriend, Charro, and another woman, and by the tears her host sheds merely because one of the guests at his party decides to leave: “You don’t have to understand everything, Anna,” Charro scolds. “We’re in Cuba and we feel things.” The mystery that confounds her cannot be penetrated, but Anna — like the author herself — is content to explore it in carefully chosen words, the true calling of the writer. 

“I saw the pile of writing paper by my bed and the unfinished letter to my mother, the fountain pen she had given me just before I left — because if there’s no email and no phone, you’ll have to do the old-fashioned thing and write.’”

And that, of course, is exactly what Leila Segal has done in “Breathe.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.