Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Reviewed by Pete Freeth
Havana Year Zero is a delightfully unusual detective story from Karla Suárez and translated into English by Christina MacSweeney. Set in the Cuban capital Havana in 1993, the novel is narrated by ‘Julia’ as she seeks to locate the document to prove that the telephone was not in fact invented in the USA by Alexander Graham Bell, but by the Italian inventor Antonio Meucci in Havana.
Now I’ll come to the inverted commas around our narrator’s name in due course, but the first notable thing about Havana Year Zero is the true tale of Meucci’s invention that’s woven throughout the plot of Suárez’s novel. Where Bell’s status as the inventor of the telephone may be relatively common knowledge, the first device to transmit the human voice via electrical current was, in fact, invented by Meucci during his time working on electric shock therapy at the Teatro Tacón theatre in Havana. While Meucci’s story is complex and tragic enough to be of its own interest, it’s testament to both Suárez’s writing and MacSweeney’s translation that its details are sprinkled as tantalising breadcrumbs throughout the novel without ever getting bogged down in extraneous detail. It’s also woven delicately around our narrator’s own story, allowing the details of both to seamlessly unfurl around one another.
Where Meucci’s story is based in fact, however, the tale of narrator ‘Julia’ is shrouded in mystery. As she introduces herself and the other characters at the centre of our story, referred to in our narrator’s mathematic parlance as ‘variables’, Julia makes it clear to us that she is using pseudonyms to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. This creates an interesting distinction between the historical narrative of Meucci’s invention and that of Julia’s journey to discover the document that would cement Meucci’s legacy: the details of Julia and her web of supporting characters are not the focus, rather they serve as allegories for the political and cultural challenges of life in Cuba during the country’s ‘special period’ following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This backdrop of crisis permeates throughout the novel, as access to water, electricity and even telephone connections can never be taken for granted, and even steer Julia’s search for the proof of Meucci’s invention.
Now Julia’s search for Meucci’s telephone is told beautifully. Her relationship to us as we read is intriguingly personal as she recounts her story as if we were sat opposite her in a coffee shop, teasing details out chronologically to reveal a web of lust, love and lies. Despite the rational, scientific credentials of our mathematician narrator, Julia herself calls the events of the novel a soap opera. And as we unpick the tangle of secrets and ulterior motives that tie together Julia’s ex-lover-cum-mentor Euclid, current love Ángel, his ex-wife Margarita, the Italian tourist Barbara and the novelist Leonardo (all pseudonyms derived from famous mathematicians), that description seems just. Nevertheless, the soap opera label indicates a subtextually negative level of melodrama that would unduly undermine the tenderness and heart of Suárez’s prose. This is a beautifully woven detective story full of intriguing twists and turns rather than petty drama – plus, the conclusion to Julia’s story provides a more than satisfying end that makes the most of the novel’s undulating plot.
How to sum up Havana Year Zero then? Well, take a thrilling elusive detective plot, add an intricate web of love and sex, the fascinating and enlightening backdrop of Havana in the early 90s, and a witty and insightful narrator, delivered through MacSweeney’s vibrant and effervescent translation and, in short, you’re left with another winner from indie superstars Charco Press.
Pete Freeth blogs at Meanings are found and loves translated literature so much he’s doing a PhD about it.
Karla Suárez, Havana Year Zero (Charco, 2021). 978-1913867003, 256 pp., paperback original..
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