When Down in Cuba begins, it’s been three years since Martin and Leo have seen each other. We know right away it’s over between them. Leo’s little girl Anabela remembers tío Martin from the photos that Leo has kept. She’s wearing clothes that Martin has sent as a present.
When the chronological story begins, Martin Vandenberg is a 46-year-old tenured professor at a small school in southern California. His academic specialty is Martí, Cuban intellectual, poet and hero of the Cuban War of Independence. Vandenberg has been married for over twenty years. He has a daughter he adores. Apparently he’s never questioned his relationship with his wife or his sexuality. In fact, he’s been running pretty much on autopilot for a long time.
When he receives a year’s sabbatical to write a book on Martí, he goes to Cuba to begin his research. On one of his first nights in Havana, he meets Leo, a handsome Cuban half his age. Leo blows the doors off the closet that Martin Vandenberg didn’t know he lived in.
In a declaration of passionate denial that many of us who married women will recognize, he declares, “You hear people talk about, you know, being in a closet. What does that mean? I never felt like I was in a closet. Leo is an attractive guy. I was drunk. I swear to God, this is not going to change my life.”
But it does. As it must.
Told in Martin’s nervous POV, Down in Cuba is a romantic tragedy in which flawed characters fail to get what they believe they want. Martin and Leo struggle within their cultural imperatives and mores, each wanting somehow to bridge the gulf between them. The silver lining to the tragedy is that they both find a truer life than they had when they met.
The book is structured in time-blocks arranged out of sequence, opening almost at the end. The intervening time-blocks are not flashbacks, but current-time episodes that will eventually give meaning to the beginning as well as the end.
While I’m not a fan of stories with reshuffled timelines, I appreciate that Meis chose this technique in support of the story. It creates a diffused ebb and flow in the relationship between Martin and Leo, keeping its fate ambiguous until all ambiguity is dispelled.
Martin is concerned that Leo is interested in him only for money or to escape Cuba. Ultimately, Leo proves the stronger, more honest and self-aware of the two. As capricious and self-centered as Martin believes Leo to be, Leo forces Martin into authenticity that he couldn’t have achieved without him. He forces Martin to come out—a gift far greater than anything Martin gives Leo.
Through Leo, Martin learns what week-to-week survival in Cuba requires: selling soap on the black market or raising roosters for fighting, befriending foreigners, easing frustration with rum and cigarettes.
Leo may be a good-hearted opportunist, but he is also an artist whose dark paintings reveal a haunted place in his soul. He is uncompromising and honest in his self-interest. He is scarred and tattooed. He is a wild being, full of passion.
One day in Old Havana, Martin and Leo make love standing at a window while a political rally fills the streets below them:
“Tell me what you hear, coño.” He sounded angry. I laughed. “Come on. You’re making me crazy. Stand up by the window. Look out. Look at the people. Look at the funny people on the street.” […]
“Look at the people. Look at my country,” he whispered, his mouth on my ear, the hot wisps of air tickling deep nerves. “All right,” he said. “Now. Do you feel it? Do you feel it? Look at the people. Can you see them? Come on. Look. Look. Look.”
Like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, Leo forces Martin to break open, but remains unchanged himself. He wields a frightening kind of integrity.
Down in Cuba is a gripping, thought-provoking, emotionally satisfying book. The characters are strong and fresh. The writing is immediate and unadorned, yet it creates a subtle, mercurial, even elusive, Cuba. It draws the reader into a collision of cultures that sheds a stern light on unexamined expectations of fairness, and attitudes that Americans like Martin might carry, such as presumption of a moral high ground that may not be warranted.
I urge you to read this book.
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker