It’s October 1957 in pre-Castro Cuba, and Havana is filled with gangsters, casinos, and corruption. Twenty-two-year-old entertainment reporter Joaquín Porrata is fed up with working for a newspaper where he’s only allowed to interview “comedians and whores.”
Upon hearing that gangster Umberto Anastasia was gunned down in New York City, he asks his editor if he can cover that story. Instead, he’s assigned to report on the death of a hippopotamus at the Havana zoo. While he’s gathering information at the zoo, an employee sends him a cryptic message stating that the hippo’s death was a mob warning to Anastasia that obviously came too late. He would give Joaquín the details in exchange for the chance to meet American actor George Raft, who will be opening a casino in Havana.
Joaquín, who was intrigued by the mob ever since he saw Anastasia with Lucky Luciano in 1946, writes an article about this possible lead, but it doesn’t get past the editor. Word spreads quickly, and another newspaper, Prensa Libre, offers him a job to report on the Anastasia murder, including investigating the actual crime scene in New York.
As you can predict, the naïve Joaquín will face danger and even death. More fascinating, though, are the people who he will encounter while connecting these crimes. Among them—in addition to George Raft—is Yolanda, a one-armed former circus performer who becomes his lover. In fact, the story is written not only from our young reporter’s perspective but also from that of Yolanda, who recollects her obsession with a gay leper.
Dancing to “Almendra” is as much character-driven as it is plot-driven. However, this strength is also the novel’s main weakness. It’s easy to get lost in the detail of minor characters. Though their personalities, quirks, and flaws are captivating, there are just too many of them to keep track of them all. Exploring Joaquín’s past adds depth to the story, but Yolanda’s recollection of her past weighs it down. The payoff is delivered if you stick with it, as most of our characters have some relationship—often indirectly and unknowingly—with the mob. What is succinct is the epilogue, in which we learn what eventually happens to all of our characters after the fall of the Batista government.
I must admit, though, that as I waded through Yolanda’s narrative, I couldn’t put the book down, in anticipation of what would happen next to Joaquín in his quest to expose the mob. Through extensive research, Cuban-born author Mayra Montero puts us in the middle of 1950s Cuba and immerses us in the life and culture of Havana, which I found intriguing. Even with its flaws, Dancing to “Almendra” is an enticing read.
(review previously published on www.nightsandweekends.com)