The sad last days of Fortress Fidel

Douglas Kennedy goes native with our man in Havana
The Land of Miracles: a journey through modern Cuba by Stephen Smith, Little,Brown, pounds 17.99

One of the more nervy moments in my travelling life took place at Jose Marti Airport in Havana. Having been commissioned by a magazine to write an essay on the Cuban capital, and after daily phone calls to the Cuban embassy in London, demanding to know when they might issue me with a journalist's visa, I finally decided to enter the country on a tourist card.

As it turned out, getting into Cuba as a turista was a breeze. Leaving was another matter. On the day of my departure, my wife called to say that the embassy had finally issued my journalist's visa and were wondering about my whereabouts. Grim visions danced through my head of arrest for illegal entry as I boarded the Cubana flight back to London - and, sure enough, when I handed over my papers to the immigration inspector at the airport, he tapped my particulars into his ancient Russian computer and then vanished with my passport. When he returned, I was certain he would be accompanied by the secret police. Instead, he was alone. "Is there a problem?", I asked. "No problem", he said. "Coffee break."

Like so many totalitarian nations, Cuba specialises in its own brand of bureaucratic farce - something that Stephen Smith discovered during his foray into the Land of Fidel. But Smith (a journalist with Channel Four News) is no P J O'Rourke, turning a jaundiced eye on the absurdities of a failed Marxist-Leninist paradise.

He is the best sort of reporter: detached, ironic, yet well versed on the terrain he's exploring. But he also has an annoying tendency to turn himself into the centrepiece of his narrative, appearing as a charmingly befuddled Englishman abroad.

Thankfully, these self-indulgent interludes are brief. The Land of Miracles is a compelling portrait of a society on the verge of an ideological breakdown - yet which, in the midst of a crippling economic embargo, still attempts to stagger through the day. More tellingly, it is a tale of an outsider trying to carve a life for himself in a deeply alien, curiously intoxicating culture.

Rather than peering down on "the natives" from the air-conditioned eyrie of a five-star hotel, Smith plunged into the grubby mainstream of Cuban life. Finding a room in an apartment building that once housed Fidel Castro, he experiences urban dwelling in a city whose infrastructure is breaking down and his narrative works best when detailing the day-to-day privations of Cuban existence. He's especially adept at conveying the manic rhythms of Havana's decrepit streets, and is a sympathetic chronicler of Cuban lives: educated women pushed into prostitution out of desperation; ageing tango dancers swirling across the floor of a rickety apartment.

Over all hangs the inherent melancholy of a society that knows it is a terminal case, but still tries to maintain its self-respect. Full marks to Smith for so cannily conveying the sad last days of Fortress Fidel. In his next book, he should trust his powers of observation, shove his own persona deep into the backfield and let Cuba do the talking.