All that's left

The crumbling ruins of communism or the dishevelled good looks of a renegade city? Douglas Kennedy visits Havana, where disarray and dignity go hand-in hand ÿ and where dinner is served in the oddest places

Sunday 19 January 2003 01:00

On my first night in Havana, I was approached by a young woman in the street. She was standing near the front of my hotel – a venerable, raffish joint, suffused with an indolent, Graham Greene-ish air of tropical intrigue. The woman was in her mid-twenties. But rather than being the usual dark, sultry femme de nuit of lore, she was rather bookish, timid, and severe in manner. I attempted to dodge her attentions – because even after a few hours in this city, I had discovered that everyone who approached you was selling something – whether it be the offer of a quick fellation in a back alley, or an hour of in-hotel-room passion for a bargain $5, or cut-rate deals on Cohiba cigars. But as I turned away from this woman, she made me the most original street-corner offer I'd ever heard: "Feel like eating dinner with my family?"

Ten minutes later, I was three flights up in a ramshackle building in which the plumbing and wiring could be seen through the plaster-less walls, and where I found myself having dinner in somebody's bedroom. The bed had been folded up and a small table laid for my benefit. By candlelight (the electricity had failed), the woman and her mother served me a simple but wonderful meal of potatoes and fish. The bill was $6. But what struck me most about the dinner was not the absurdity of the venue, but the utter dignity and hospitality shown me by this woman and her mother.

Then again, Havana is an ongoing juncture between the decrepit, the clandestine and the elegant – something that Andrew Moore's extraordinary photos capture with pellucid precision. The city is – on one level – a calamity. Imagine someone with magnificent teeth who hasn't bothered to brush or floss for more than four decades, and you'll begin to understand the structural disarray and architectural infirmity that is such an intrinsic part of Havana. However, Moore also reveals the visual dazzle that somehow manages to supercede the decrepitude: in front of a 1910 Art-Nouveau building, whose façade is pockmarked with fissures (and adorned with a drying bedsheet), an electric-red 1954 Bel Air Chevrolet is parked.

Or he happens upon a typical backstreet scene – a kerbside card game, in which table and chairs have been set up in front of someone's front door, with assorted neighbours looking on from a balcony that (on closer inspection) looks profoundly unstable.

Throughout this shrewd, hugely atmospheric collection of Havana images, Moore manages to avoid editorialising about the ongoing Cold War realities of the place, just as he avoids playing up its post-revolutionary debilitation and banana-socialism clichés. If anything, he brings a cool, compassionate eye to this most exuberant and tragic of cities. Just as he revels in the bold splashes of colour and the astringently bright Caribbean light that undercut the urban decay.

Most tellingly, these photos stand as a testament to the citizens of Havana – to their ability to find the visually opulent and riotous amid such material paucity. Their self-respect is apparent in Moore's compositions. So too is their mastery of one of the great daily challenges of life: the search for the extraordinary in the face of the bleak and the prosaic.

Andrew Moore's book 'Inside Havana' is published by Chronicle Books, priced £30

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