When a book is suggested to be "Öthe most important work of Cuban fiction in the last thirty years," one has certain expectations. Then again, how many works of Cuban fiction have you read lately? And what can one expect from a book entitled Dirty Havana Trilogy? Sex, drugs, poverty, a picaresque romp through the slums of CubaÖat least that is what this reader expected to find. Still, I had no idea how dirty this dirty trilogy would be.
With this semi-autobiographical novel, Pedro Juan Gutierrez has been compared to Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller. Rightfully so, I might add. His harsh realism and candid tales might even surpass those of Bukowski and Miller in their frankness and unapologetic exhibitionism. Full of sweat, dirt, crude sex and just a bit of beauty, Dirty Havana Trilogy is the kind of book one reads not for its poetics but to get a glimpse into a world of one man and his vision, a vision rooted into observation and experience. The novel is separated into three books, each centering around the misadventures of Pedro Juan, former journalist, occasional garbage man and black market dealer; lover of women, rum, cigars, and all things sensual. A man who seems more in love with sex than with life. A dirty man, indeed, but one who presents his saga in uncluttered sentences that still manage occasional beauty, even when full of expletives and lurid imagery.
"Iím not interested in the decorative, or the beautiful, or the sweet, or the delicious. Thatís why I always had my doubts about a sculptor I was married to for a while. There was too much peace in her sculptures for them to be any good. Art only matters if itís irreverent, tormented, full of nightmares and desperation. Only an angry, obscene, violent, offensive art can show us the other side of the world, the side we never see or try not to see so as to avoid troubling our consciences."
This is Gutierrezís artistic philosophy and it seems to make sense within the confines of this novel. A harsh collection of stories that comprise a novel-- a format American authors seem leery of exploringó the book is an affront to all things banal. Complacency is not found anywhere in these pages. Pedro Juan and his collection of characters live lives full of struggle where making it from one day to the next is a Herculean task. They escape their lives with sex, rum, marijuana, and other sordid pursuits. Food and money come along rarely but when they do they are spent as quickly as they came. It is a deceptively simple novel populated by whores, cheats, killers, rapists, and even accidental cannibals. Readers who come to this book should be warned of its brutality and frankness, but if you are one who enjoys this harsh style of realist writing then you could do a lot worse than Dirty Havana Trilogy. And if you are not, then perhaps you should be. This is the type of book that speaks of sex as fucking rather than making love. "Sex isnít for the squeamish. Sex is an exchange of fluids, saliva, breath and smells, urine, semen, shit, sweat, microbes, bacteria. Or there is no sex. If itís just tenderness and ethereal spirituality, then it can never be more than a sterile parody of the real thing."
This is a work of art that exists to remind us we are flawed creatures in an imperfect universe that is completely absurd. In light of this concept, what other path is there for us then the path of Pedro Juan-- the struggle, the escape, the brutal honesty, these things are essential in the face of absurdity. The savoring of experience and the courage to relay it without apology, this is what Gutierrez has given us in this his debut novel. Read if you dare.