The Insatiable Spiderman by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez trans John King

Our man in Havana
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The Independent Culture

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Cuba is famous for rum, cigars, dancing, classic cars and sex. Pedro Juan Gutiérrez' literary prowl through the streets of Havana contains just about all of these. Here, his drunken, hustling anti-hero, at 50, is a little older than in Dirty Havana Trilogy, the first novel in the series, but he is no less partial to a few shots of cheap rum and a spot of sweaty nymphomania.

In Pedro Juan's world, sex is everywhere: hard, cruel, bleary-eyed, dangerous sex (this book starts with a rape scene). There are orgies in the park, there's masturbation on the roof, there are prostitutes on corners and steamy quickies against the Malecón (Havana's famous sea-wall). Gutiérrez, it seems, has an inexhaustible supply of salacious scenarios and outrageous characters, and he flashes them before our eyes with such churning speed that it's difficult to digest.

His female characters are fiery yet compliant, written with a perplexing mix of compassion and chauvinism. Amid this great sexual spectacle, Pedro Juan plays the insatiable stud, the lovable rogue, fraying at the edges and wielding a whip. There's much more to this than an illustration of stereotypes around the ostracised and eccentric island of Cuba. Gutiérrez does play lavishly on the world's fascination with his country, but he gives us considerably more than what we bargained for. Pedro Juan and his fellow Cubans are dirt poor. They're living in filthy rooms in decaying buildings, in houses infested with roaches, and surviving on rice and beans. Everyone's a hustler. An old woman sells books for a few pesos, younger women sell their bodies to get by, and Pedro Juan, an ex-journalist, sometimes sells lobsters. There is an eternal search for food, for protein, for chicken that hasn't gone off.

With blatant honesty, Gutiérrez thrusts the ugliness of poverty into full view. Sex becomes a kind of antidote to hunger, and Pedro Juan relies on it to fend off a spiritual death that he senses lurking at the pinnacle of a life of struggle.

He writes with an unruly, nonchalant hand and goes out of his way neither to impress nor to protect the more faint-hearted of readers. At the same time, Pedro Juan is not without a softer side, and this is what brings balance to a text that might otherwise be unbearable for its crudeness and cynicism. There are exquisite moments in these pages, gentle epiphanies amid the Havana ruins and stench. He expresses a deep love of the Malecón and the sea, where he likes to fish. The writing is thick with atmosphere and fiercely vivid; underpinning everything is a wry and irresistible humour. Pedro Juan is a multi-layered narrator, which means that his text has many, often conflicting, levels of impact.

In the expected next instalment, one hopes Gutiérrez might linger a little longer on his characters and their ludicrous stories. The Insatiable Spiderman, like its predecessor, is a dizzying spree of vignettes, many of which could turn into novels on their own. With such charisma in his pen, and such juicy raw material at his disposal, Gutiérrez has the potential to hold our attention for many more wildly indecent prowls.

Diana Evans's novel '26a' is published next month by Chatto & Windus

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