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Special Relationship, Cuban Style - An interview with JOSE LATOUR

Written by Georgina Burns

José Latour was born in Havana, Cuba, where he won his first literary prize aged thirteen. Outcast is his seventh novel and his first written in English. He has travelled extensively in the United States, Eastern and Western Europe, Canada and Mexico, and is the vice president of the Latin American division of the International Association of Crime Writers. He has two sons and a daughter and lives with his wife and family in Havana.

JOSE LATOUR

One reviewer has hailed José Latour, author of Havana Best Friends, as the ‘King of Cuban Noir’, but true to his roots in Communist Cuba, José quickly shrugs off such reverence. ‘I am king of nothing,’ he says. ‘I do not aspire to positions in any hierarchy. What I aspire to is that most readers don’t feel I’ve let them down when they reach the last page’.

At the heart of Havana Best Friends are some very unusual and dysfunctional relationships. Not least between the brother and sister, Pablo the pornographer and Elena the special needs teacher. They're such an unusual pair, divided by their differences yet forced to live together because of the rigidity of the housing situation in Cuba. Is Cuba full of people begrudgingly sticking with situations because to do anything else is made so difficult by the political and economic situation?

The housing problem is particularly critical in Cuba. The population has doubled in forty years and the government has built less than half the apartments needed for the new generation. For many years strict zoning regulations prevented private individuals from building their own houses. For these reasons, many young people forced to keep living under the same roof with their parents pine for their own home. Some experts argue that the dearth of housing is one of the reasons for our high divorce rate. In the last nine lines of page 89 and the first two of page 90, Captain Trujillo reflects on this. And that’s a fact, not fiction. It would seem that political and economic hardships considerably influence personal behaviour, which becomes social behaviour when such misfortunes bear upon the majority of the people.

Elena comes across as the only truly good and moral person in Havana Best Friends. Her naivety is glaring. Everybody else seems to have obvious flaws and pretty much to have their own selfish gain in the forefront of their minds. Was Elena a benchmark for goodness? I notice you dedicate the book to special needs teachers, who provide a "guiding light". I think you have a soft spot for Elena. Am I right?

I have a soft spot for all special needs teachers. Noble, self-sacrificing people are hard to find, but they coexist with us. The problem is that they seem to be a tiny minority everywhere. Which is a shame.

Carlos, the blind man running the diamond heist from New York, seems to be something of a woman magnet. His wondrous characteristics are espoused at length by Marina, and she isn't the only one beguiled by him. Is their some significance in the fact he is blind? You do hint at the idea that some of his attraction lies in the woman's belief that she is not being judged superficially on her looks alone.

Many years ago I met a blind man who was a lawyer and a pianist. I was amazed by the fact that beautiful women fell head over heels for him. I guess it had something to do with his disability, perhaps because attractive females like to be appreciated for other reasons beyond their looks, whereas many heterosexual men seem to be more seduced by form than by fundamentals when choosing their women. But he was quite handsome too and played romantic music like an angel. There we were, single guys twenty years younger than him, at the peak of our virility, reasonably educated and with money in our pockets, unable to score with the most gorgeous gals in the party because they were all around the piano, vying for his attention. Carlos was modelled on this man.

One reviewer called you the King of Cuban Noir. That sounds like one hell of a compliment, but how does it fit with you and your own ideas of where your writing should sit?

I appreciate the appellation, but I am king of nothing. I do not aspire to positions in any hierarchy, neither cultural, nor political, economic or social. What I aspire to is that most readers don’t feel that I’ve let them down when they reach the last page of a book I penned.

Someone reading this book might get the idea that drugs, prostitutes and violence are rife in Cuba. Obviously this is all the stuff of fantastic Noir writing, but what's the real Cuba for you?

The drug problem in Cuba is getting quite serious, crime is worse than ever since 1960 and prostitution is gaining momentum. The fact that some people abroad have an idyllic view of my country stems from two realities. First, the government controls the media and many years ago the decision was taken not to report news that might jeopardise the notion that Cuban society is perfect and that nobody has reasons to become addicted to drugs, steal something or prostitute herself (or himself). Secondly, nearly all visitors to Cuba classify in two broad categories: those invited by the government and the tourists. Both are insulated from reality in official acts, hotels, tourist resorts and dollars-only stores; security is tight in all these places.

Nonetheless, I sincerely believe that if you compare Cuba with other countries, our problems are less acute for several reasons. One is vigilance and repression, another is education, remittances from relatives living abroad allow a significant percentage of the population to survive without having to steal or peddle drugs or become prostitutes. There are other factors as well, but a full review would demand too much space.

For me, the real Cuba is no different than, for example, the real Great Britain is for the Britons, the real India is for the Indians or the real Japan is for the Japanese. A majority of decent, law-abiding, affectionate people and a minority of crooks, bastards and s.o.bs. Luckily, everywhere is the same. No more, no less.

This is your second book written in the English language. I'm sure you're a pro now, but was it difficult to adapt? Do you prefer writing in Spanish or English?

Yes, it was difficult to adapt. And it still is. I learn English on a daily basis, as I write, or read, or watch TV. Of course, I prefer writing in Spanish, but it’s extremely difficult for Hispanic writers to reach the international book market writing in their mother tongue. Therefore, I’ll keep writing in English.

Are you working on a new book at the moment? Will it be set in Cuba?

Yes, I’m working on a new book and it will be set mostly in Cuba.

© HarperCollins website 2002 http://www.fireandwater.com
Jose Latour's latest novel HAVANA BEST FRIENDS published by Harper Collins 
4th July 2011. Read our review by Philip Gooden in the Crime Report section

Jose Latour



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