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It would be much too risky to list the “best books” of Cuban literature, considered one of the richest in the Americas. Instead, we prefer to suggest a number of titles that we believe are essential reading in order to gain an understanding of the culture and idiosyncrasy of the Cuban people.
1 Cecilia Valdés
Cirilo Villaverde (1812-1894)
The most important work of fiction of 19th-century Cuba. This novel, which is in itself a synthesis of the customs of the period and a model for the study of society, as well as historical portrayal, introduced melodrama in Cuban culture and established what is probably the only national literary myth: that of the sensual and beautiful mulatto woman, Cecilia Valdés.
2 La Edad de Oro [The Golden Age]
José Martí (1853-1895)
Consisting of the four numbers of a magazine that the Apostle of Cuban independence dedicated to the children of America, with beautiful poems and narratives filled with useful knowledge and valuable teachings, it is the classic par excellence of Cuban literature for children.
3 Sóngoro cosongo
Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989)
A collection of poems dubbed “mulatto” by its author—Cuba”s National Poet—announces the true cultural identity of the Cuban people beyond colour differences and where for the first time poetry is imbued with the sensual and playful rhythm of the son.
4 A Cuban Confrontation Between Tobacco and Sugar
Fernando Ortiz (1881-1968)
Erudition, precise prose and wit are combined in this essay written by one who has been considered the “discoverer” of 20th-century Cuba. Based on the agrarian, economic, historical and social differences of these two products, which have played a leading role in Cuba since the 18th century, this synthesis of Cuban society clarifies the past and helps us understand the present.
5 Jardín [Garden]
Dulce María Loynaz (1902-1997)
Considered in its time by the critics as one of the most significant events in literature in the Spanish language during the first half of the 20th century, this “lyrical novel,” which tells the life story of a woman who has a disturbing relation with her house and garden, was forgotten for decades until 1992, when its author was awarded the Cervantes prize, which drew attention on this original novel thanks to the masterly play on time, the insertion of magic in daily life and a personal feminist perspective, all of which is a notable precedent to the so-called boom in Latin American narrative.
6 All Things Cuban in Poetry
Cintio Vitier (1921)
A collection of topics on poetry assumed by Vitier as a reflection of the spiritual image of culture, a lyrical study of the relationships between poetry and homeland. A classic in its own right, it is one of the most enlightening essays on Cuban poetry.
7 The Age of Enlightenment
Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980)
Established as one of the momentous novels of the so-called boom of Latin American narrative, with its polished baroque style and based on “magic realism”—a term suggested by Carpentier himself—it deals with the repercussions of the French Revolution in the Caribbean through a love story.
8 The Sugar Mill
Manuel Moreno Fraginals (1920-2001)
A controversial, yet widely acclaimed book both in Cuba and abroad, it is the most complete study of the Cuban sugar economic and social structure and an essential guide to understanding the peculiarities of plantation economy and its present outlook.
9 Three Sad Tigers
Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005)
Cabrera Infante sets his narrative in the skilfully described, fascinating world of Havana nightlife, which serves as background for mix-ups and confusions, delving into the passions and miseries of its characters with an ironic and sometimes sarcastic examination.
José Lezama Lima (1910-1976)
Written by one of the most widely read Cuban authors of the 20th century, this book is structured as a novel and revealed in the historical, aesthetic, ideological, mythological, autobiographical levels, which together manage to create a work that reads as a family chronicle or the anthropological history of Cuba, among other possible interpretations.
11 Biography of a Runaway Slave
Miguel Barnet (1940)
Singular testimony given to the author by a rebel slave and told as an enjoyable account of a survivor of slavery, this book has been translated into numerous languages and is considered one of the texts that introduce the literary genre of testimony into literature. In the words of Graham Greene, “There wasn”t a book like this before, and it is quite improbable it will be repeated.”
12 Steps in the Grass
Eduardo Heras León (1940)
Another classic among short story-telling in the continent, inserted within the so-called “violence short stories”, with artistic skill, it tells of the conflicts developed from the daily military tensions of the 1960s when the history of the Cuban Revolution was being decided.
13 The Bandits of Condado
Norberto Fuentes (1943)
In this classic of Latin American narrative, profoundly humane characterizations and situations are concisely told through stories about the war waged against armed bands in the Escambray Mountains during the 1960”s.
Roberto Fernández Retamar (1930)
One of the first works of the so-called “postcolonial studies”, this book is a revealing essay for a better understanding of the development of Latin American literature and is a decisive contribution to Third World thinking and a theoretical approach to the culture of these peoples.
Daniel Chavarría (1933)
Considered by the critics as the work that marks the beginning of detective fiction in Cuban literature, with this scientific counterespionage-based novel, the author embarks on a literary career that has been distinguished with numerous awards.
16 Angel Season
Lisandro Otero (1932)
The result of thorough historical research, the portrayal of the period of antimonarchic revolution led in England by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century gave Lisandro Otero the pretext for this profound reflection—with an underlying contemporary feel—on power and the nature of resources it uses to establish itself and endure.
17 The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man
Senel Paz (1950)
The relationship between a naive young man from the country who studies social sciences, and a stubbornly urban homosexual who worships Cuban culture, serves as background to a critical view of intolerance and dogmatism that marked the Island during the 1970s. The story has been adapted for the stage and served as the basis for the famous Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate.
18 The King of Havana
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (1950)
Regarded in Europe as a “tropical Bukowski”, Gutiérrez—whose unprejudiced vision and language, which borders on the obscene, have made him a controversial author—considers this his first novel “a study on human cruelty” submerged in a marginal world of unbridled sexuality and hopeless characters.
Somebody Has to Cry
Marilyn Bobes (1955)
The short stories that comprise this volume, with subtle yet implacable depth, delve into the psychology of its characters: women immersed in the conflicts, doubts and frustrations of a society headed towards the upsetting material and spiritual changes that defined the close of the century in Cuba.
20 Flight of the Cat
Abel Prieto (1950)
The lives, sometimes convergent, sometimes divergent, of three high school friends become the thread of this novel, which, through a gallery of characters and situations ranging from the hilarious to the tragic, explores Cuba”s rich and contradictory reality of the 1960s and 70s.
21 Let Us not Forget, 2 v
Eusebio Leal Spengler (1942)
An exceptional graphic testimonial of the restoration of Havana”s Historical Centre, with hundreds of photographs of the state of repair of the buildings before the intervention of archaeologists, historians, biologists, architects and construction workers, as well as the outcome of this multidisciplinary effort. The book also reveals—with the author”s typically eloquent and passionate discourse—the cultural and methodological principles that have guided the work of Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler”s, Historian of Havana, and principal architect of the revival of the original portion of the Cuban capital.
22 The Mist of the Past
Leonardo Padura (1955)
Ex-detective Mario Conde, the hero of four earlier successful novels, who has become a bookseller due to the difficult economic situation in Cuba, driven by the need to prove his innocence in a crime in which he seems to be implicated, digs into the nightclub scene of the 1950s and in the hallucinating world of delinquency of present-day Havana.
23 The Road to the Sea or We Cubans
Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera (1943)
A collection of essays in which the poet and professor Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera, with the carefree and humoristic style of colloquialism, delves into significant aspects of the formation of Cuba”s national identity, either through the vicissitudes of history or that which is both perceived and reaffirmed in poetry or music. A substantial, enjoyable and brave text, which is required reading for whoever wishes to get to know the Cuban people, the elements that have been crucial in the formation of our idiosyncrasy and the motives of certain behaviors, which, for an unsuspecting observer, may seem inexplicable.
24 Voices and Echoes
Aida Bahr (1958)
The dogmatism, lack of understanding and marginalization that marred the Cuban cultural world in the 1970s during the period which scholars have called the “grey quinquennium—or even decade,” is the topic of this first-person novel about the intellectual, emotional and human development of a young woman with a strong artistic vocation, who tells her own story and at the same time ironically questions the aesthetic and stylistic efficiency of her own narrative. A well-known storyteller, the author makes her debut as a novelist with this work, which has been very well received by the public and the critics.
25 Everybody Leaves
Wendy Guerra (1970)
Written in the style of a diary, this novel—sometimes realistic and sometimes intensely poetic—tells the life story of Nieve Guerra, the loneliness and fears of her childhood, the time she spent in a reformatory and at the National Art School, her discovery of sex, and, especially, her intense feeling of abandonment, because, as the author has commented, “I believe that “everybody leaves” all places. Outward, inward. Some go to the airport, others to the cemetery, and still others leave us gently or with a slam and consign us directly to oblivion. This is neither a Cuban issue nor the sentiment of a “generation.”
26 In the Sky with Diamonds
Senel Paz (1950)
After 17 years away from publishing houses, Paz now has now laid before the public this novel, which another successful Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura, considers that is “a novel of sexual initiation, not of one or two characters, but of a whole generation. also, a novel of the ideological initiation of a human group. This is why, together with the glory of discovering sex, equal opportunities, the dazzling capital city, other things also come on the scene—the sordid origins of moral and ideological deceitfulness, the comments in undertone and even the absolute silence that became entrenched and killed the happiness of so many individuals thanks to historical pressure, orthodoxies and extremism in different times in the life of the country.”
27 Djuna y Daniel
Ena Lucía Portela (1972)
The author herself has summarized the plot of her book: “Set for the greater part in Paris in the period between the wars. it deals about friendship, uprootedness, sexual relationships, alcoholism, money and certain. somewhat problematic aspects in the business of writing. The novel describes several episodes—some true, some fictional—from the lives of the legendary American writer Djuna Barnes, also known as “the Garbo of literature” for her evasiveness, mysterious airs and sensuality, and Daniel A. Mahoney. who was her friend of many years. According to Professor Philip Herring, Mahoney was “one of the most sadly fun characters in the modern history of the left bank of the Seine.”
28 The Coral Bridge
Hugo Luis Sánchez
Set in a Cuban coastal village, from the 1930s to 1950s, this novel—a mix between adventure stories and spy fiction—of a marked cinematic nature, strong characters and language that may go from conciseness to poetry, according to the author, “tells the story of three friends, two boys and one girl. It combines love, murder, smuggling and vengeance. There”s a brothel and a whole lot of whores. I began [to work on the book] attracted by the presence of German submarines in Cuban territorial waters during WWII, something that is truly fascinating.” The author breaks away from the vocation of documenting the present, so frequent in today”s Cuban narrative.
29 The Man who Loved Dogs
Leonardo Padura (1955)
The origin of this fascinating novel, which delves into the life and personality of Catalan Ramón Mercader, the man who was appointed by the Stalinist regime to assassinate the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1940, lies perhaps in Leonardo Padura”s visit to Trotsky”s home in Coyacá, Mexico in 1989. With a plot set in Russia, Turkey, France, Norway, United States, Mexico and Cuba—where Mercader lived in hiding from 1974 until his death in 1978—the novel, written in Padura”s usual narrative skill, is also an acute reflection on the corruption of socialist utopia in the Soviet Union.
30 The Loneliness of Time
Alberto Guerra Naranjo (1963)
Inserted within a frequent trend in Cuba”s most recent literature—narratives with a strong autobiographical mark and an inclination towards social criticism in which it is very difficult to separate reality from fiction—Guerra Naranjo”s first novel goes into great detail about opportunism and the lack of scruple, which have come to the surface due to the country”s economic difficulties, in Cuban society, and, especially, within the “learned city” in which three writers—the book”s main characters—strive for recognition, which only one of them will enjoy, regardless of how reprehensible the ways to reach their goal may be.
31 Secret Inventory of Havana
Abilio Estévez (1954)
The contrast between the heartrending attachment of the Havana-born, 19th century poet, Julián del Casal to his city, whom he loved beyond its misery and mediocrity, and the never achieved literary utopia of his contemporary José Martí, also born in Havana but cut off from it since his youth, gives rise to the novel in which the city of Havana is the main character, either through the sometimes nostalgic, sometimes unforgiving view of its author, as well as of other Cuban and international writers and anonymous inhabitants. A mixture of reality and fiction, it explores the city, mythicized by yearning and memories, but is also evoked in the harshness of its more sombre aspects.