BOOK REVIEW / To Havana and have not: 'Writes of Passage' - G Cabrera Infante: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
PUNS are risky. It is a brave author who entitlesa collection of short stories Writes of Passage. However, G Cabrera Infante is no faintheart. Muscling through a prologue full of fighting talk ('Most novels these days are really disaster areas') and further puns ('a five-foot Pole named Conrad'), the reader is bewilderingly confronted with a 12-page unpunctuated story, of which this is a random sample:

mama said but couldnt they wait please just onemore month and the man said thatll be the day and theyll be coming tomorro haha to take the furniture away and they better dont do anything rash scratch scratch because then theyll come back with the police ahah and theyll be a victim by force

Once tackled,though, this turns out to be a brilliantly written account, as seen by a six-year-old, of a few hours in the life of a poor Cuban family threatened with eviction.

These are Cabrera Infante's early stories, first published as a collection in Cuba in 1960. Perhaps the author rewrote them in English, as there is no indication of a translator. Joyce is an obvious influence, but the situations on the whole are everyday. A woman forced to keep house for her brothers is enraged by the sight of two flies mating, and in trying to swat them starts to smash up the house. A woman waits for her man to return from some illicit undertaking, and the story focuses on her angry relationship with her Indian maid. In a taut, four-page story, a woman on her honeymoon sends her husband off on a piece of business and then throws herself from a cliff.

There is a deceptive simplicity about the stories. The prose is spare, the observation that of a fascinated scientist. The writing often has a miraculous rightness: the sea at night 'is a raven with wings of water and out of the blackness of its feathers white down falls'. Politics intrude rarely. The story which got the author into trouble with the police is about political gangsterism in Batista's Cuba, but it appears that it was an obscenity - in English, moreover - to which the authorities ostensibly objected. That seems apt for an author who declares in his prologue that form is all, and whose preoccupation with language is the mainspring of this provocative book.