It starts with a dead hippopotamus.
Then there’s the narrator, Joaquin, a young reporter on the entertainment scene aching for his big break into real news; his older brother, a successful business- and ladies- man and the spitting image of their father; their mother, lightly alcoholic and distraught by the younger daughter’s blatant lesbianism and penchant for male clothing; his childhood best friend, a well-respected pimp with connections, whose mother, a great beauty who moves in powerful circles was the first object of the narrator’s desire; the utterly star-struck zoo-worker whose job it is to slaughter and butcher horses for the lions; the object of his affection, mafia movie maven-cum business man George Raft; the girlfriend, a gorgeous yet one-armed former circus performer ten years his senior; her boss, a misogynistic homosexual leper whose vaudeville-style productions are of great renown; and the Chinese woman, the magician’s assistant who raised her.
Take all that, set it in pre-Castro revolution Havana, Cuba, 1957, mix it with Mafia interests and personalities, and there is more historical and personal tension then any person, city, or country could survive. The story opens at the newspaper office where the newsfeed has just proclaimed Umberto Anastasia, a powerful member of the American mafia dead on sight in a New York City barbershop. Following that is news of the killing of the escaped hippopotamus. When Joaquin goes to the zoo to investigate, he is approached by the man who feeds the lions, who gives him this insight into the rotting carcass lying in front of them: “That’s a message for Anastasia.” From this unfurls Joaquin’s life-long obsession with the inner workings and personalities of the mafia as he embarks to investigate the truth of this statement and hopes to finally make it into news writing.
Dancing to “Almendra” by Myra Montero appears in English through an elegant translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, the established translator of many works from Spanish to English but best-known for the majority of contemporary editions of Gabriel García Márquez. Delicately handled, the text retains delightful nuances from the original Spanish, particularly the names of the various publications where Joaquin works, and the names of characters and places.
The writing style, like the setting of the story itself, and the people involved in it, is influenced by phenomena both native and foreign, with contributions from traditional forms of Spanish language literature in its inclusion of Márquez-esque magical realism, and from American crime fiction straight off the pulp pages. These are channeled into the two parallel narratives of the novel; the story Joaquin relates, of the underworld of Havana, governed by American mafia interests, where unwanted citizens get disappeared at the zoo where they are butchered with the horses, and that of his lover, Yolanda, whose italicized whispers echo many of Márquez’s favorite themes: somnambulism, immortality, fate, and sexual encounters. It is in these sections that one of Montero’s most compelling images resides, that of destined attraction personified. Yolanda is told by her mother she will recognize him when he comes as a magician, whose invisible hook cast into her heart she will be unable to resist.
Though the brewing revolution is mentioned directly very few times, the feeling of a failing last stand permeates the novel. Be it the characters, who, in the case of Rodney, the leper show director, is literally falling apart, his flesh at times dripping off his body; the relationships, families and couples, unable to stand the pressure, or the city itself, facing construction and development, whose infrastructure can’t support the decadence poured upon it by American interests. Early in the novel, when Joaquin reveals his infatuation with his best friend’s mother, he also relates the first time he saw her with a man and understood the power of what existed between them. The two were dancing a danzón, a slow, passionate genre regarded as the definitive Cuban dance, to the song featured in the book’s title. This image recurs throughout the novel, serving as a counterpoint for the turmoil and chaos of the outside world. Despite everything, there it is- the sight and sound of the elegant, thoughtful shuffling and smooth voice, of two people held tightly together, solid and, at least for the moment, imperturbable.
It starts with a dead hippopotamus.