Havana breathes, swears and cries in Dariel Suárez’s first novel, The Playwright’s House (Red Hen Press, 2021). With a plot that blends family stories and national history, this is a beautifully layered book that shows Cuba through the eyes of a native.
Serguey is a young lawyer employed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expecting to be assigned soon to a post in Sweden. He and his wife live in a beautiful apartment in El Vedado. The apartment has been given to the young couple by Serguey’s mentor, Gimenez, “a well-regarded defense attorney-turned-government official whose bourgeois relatives survived the Revolution unscathed.” Though a social climber who has gotten ahead by keeping his mouth shut, Serguey looks at first sight like el hombre nuevo, the new man dreamed of by Che Guevara and created for and by the revolution. Meanwhile, his brother Victor lives on the edge of legality. He is unemployed, deals in the black market and has been in jail several times. Due to some traumatic childhood experiences, the brothers barely speak to each other. But when their father, Felipe Blanco, a famous theater director, is imprisoned and nobody knows why, they must join forces to find out what he is being accused of, and, ultimately, free him.
Serguey and Victor navigate the Cuban legal system against the backdrop of a country in ruins. During their hard and often dangerous journey, the brothers examine their own lives and take decisions that will reshape them. Along the way they encounter enemies, like Montalvo, a retired colonel who now works for State Security, and allies, like Claudia Bernal, an independent journalist and Father Linares, a Catholic priest. Readers are given a front-row seat to the social layers and undercurrents that coexist in Havana, some of them hidden in plain sight.
The underground world of bloggers and social media activists that documented Cuba’s unprecedented wave of protests when they erupted in mid-July is depicted in The Playwright’s House with nuance and complexity. They are at the core of the novel and a vehicle of power to shine a necessary light on Cuban society. “People outside the island aren’t blind to what’s happening here. They see what we write and share, often in real time,” Claudia states. Suarez does an excellent job portraying the dissident movement without romanticizing or glorifying it.
Among the cast of well-drawn characters, one stands out, painted with bold strokes—Toya, the santera who offers the brothers a spiritual consultation in one of the most poignant scenes in the novel. She tells Serguey, a non-believer, “You will have choices. You just won’t know which one’s right until long after you’ve made them.” Refreshingly, Santeria doesn’t appear as taken out of the magic realism toolbox, but a practice woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Readers are also treated to a glimpse into the Havana theater scene, from the opening scene in Teatro Mella to the reasons that compelled Felipe Blanco to direct Electra Garrigó, a Cuban parody of Sophocles’ Electra by Virgilio Piñera. (Piñera was ostracized by the government and died in obscurity in 1979.) “This is the best version I’ve seen,” a spectator declares. Which tells a lot about Felipe Blanco and the kind of theater he does.
The novel carries a strong sense of place and is full of the kind of details that you can’t get from browsing articles online or using Google Earth—a first-hand, insider’s kind of knowledge. Because Suárez is, indeed, an insider who lived in the island until he was fourteen years old. He captures the essence of the posh El Vedado, where Serguey’s apartment is located in a ten-story building that looks “like a decorated tower, an emblem, as many things tended to be in Cuba.” At the other end of the city is Victor’s home, in a poverty-ridden area “where bare concrete showed on facades so clustered they allowed little to no view beyond them. The heart of Havana—in contrast to Serguey’s own lofty neighborhood—had gradually transformed into deplorable sleeping quarters for all who could fit.”
Though the pages are often filled with action and tension and the plot takes many twists and turns, the main characters’ inner life is portrayed in vivid detail. Neither Serguey nor Victor is a typical hero, but their foibles and weaknesses make them believable and sympathetic. The tough Cuban realities are shown without an ounce of preaching, through intimate poignant scenes, like Serguey and his wife reheating “some runny paella” when there is nothing else to eat. It is a tale of family love, resilience and a quest for personal truth.
About Dariel Suárez
Dariel Suárez is also the author of the story collection A Kind of Solitude (Willow Springs Books), winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, the International Latino Book Award for Best Collection of Short Stories, and a MassBook Award “Must Read.” He is also the author of the poetry chapbook In the Land of Tropical Martyrs (Backbone Press). He is the Education Director at GrubStreet, the country’s largest independent creative writing center.