"Dancing to Almendra"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte APR 5, 2007)
It is the mid 1950’s in Havana, Cuba. In Dancing to Almendra, a Mafia boss and his wife wake up in the morning, and pull the sheets aside only to be confronted by the severed head a large St. Bernard dog.
If the scene reminds one of a very popular Hollywood production where a fictionalized Mafia boss, Don Corleone has a similar surprise greeting a straying crime boss, the similarity just might be intentional. Cuban author Mayra Montero’s latest novel, Dancing to Almendra, has more than an occasional nod to Hollywood. Actor George Raft who in real life had questionable underworld alliances, makes a strong appearance here and the neon glamor of Havana’s casinos so beautifully portrayed by Montero, closely parallels Hollywood’s glitz.
Young Joaquin Porrata is the protagonist in Dancing to Almendra, a rookie reporter who spends most of his time interviewing newly minted stars in Havana’s glitzy nightclubs. Porrata longs for a juicy story to sink his teeth into and along comes one that seems just right. In faraway New York, crime boss Alberto Anastasia is murdered in a barbershop in New York. On the same day a hippo is killed in a zoo in Havana. As Porrata slowly finds out, there is an intriguing link between the two seemingly unrelated incidents.
His investigations take him to New York and back and the plots get thicker, although the many names thrown about make it occasionally confusing.
The story also has Porrata falling in love with Yolanda, a one-armed woman twice his age, who was once a performer herself. As the book picks up steam, Yolanda narrates her story as well--that of a young girl attracted by the circus, brought up by a Chinese woman, and who later deals with the guilt of leaving her son behind as she carves a life in Havana.
In Dancing to Almendra, Montero who began her writing career as a journalist, expertly mixes fact with fiction. The story, for example, revolves around the murder of real life crime boss Alberto Anastasia in the 50’s and also features Meyer Lansky the Mafia boss who established gambling cells in Cuba.
The biggest strength of the novel is its portrait of Havana, a city made alive by Montero’s brilliant writing. “The city had an imaginary face, more or less its everyday face, with clerks leaving offices, people going into stores, crowded movies, and another hidden face, the face of landings, secret transmissions, homemade bombs, and disfigured corpses on the sidewalks,” Montero writes. “Between the imaginary face and the hidden face was shifting ground, insidious quicksand that swallowed up everything.”
As for Porrata, he chases the scent of the crime story like a bloodhound. So what if “ten of his twenty-two years soaking up the tactics, warnings, secrets and habits of the Mafia residing in Havana” tell him to steer clear? Like a true journalist Porrata will do almost anything for a good story. “A madman with information is a hand grenade: pull the pin and you can explode along with him,” Porrata reminds himself. Even if he has to stomach a few nasty, Don Corleonesque surprises along the way, it’s fun to watch a rookie reporter like Joaquin Porrata dodge the grenade and survive the explosion.
Note: Translator is Edith Grossman
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Twenty-Three and Turtle: Stories
- The Braid of the Beautiful Moon
- The Last Night I Spent With You (1991; 2000 in US)
- The Red of His Shadow (1993; 2001 in US)
- In the Palm of Darkness (1995; 1997 in US)
- The Messenger (1998; 1999 in US)
- Deep Purple (2000; 2003 in US)
- Captain of the Sleepers (2002; August 2005 in US)
- Dancing to "Almendra" (2006; January 2007 in US)
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- Official website for the author
- Wikipedia page on Mayra Montero
- Bomb inerview with Mayra Montero
- Reading Guide for The Last Night I Spent With You
- Reading Guide for The Red of His Shadow
- Reading Guide for In the Palm of Darkness
- Cuny.Edu review of In the Palm of Darkness
- Reading Guide for The Messenger
- Words Without Borders review of Captain of the Sleepers
- New York Times review of Dancing to Almendra
- LA Times review of Dancing to Almendra
- PopMatters review of Dancing to Almendra
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About the Author:
Mayra Montero was born in Cuba in 1952. She left Cuba at a young age has lived in Puerto Rico since 1960s. She studied journalism in Mexico and Puerto Rico and worked for many years as a correspondent in Central America and Caribbean. She is presently a highly acclaimed journalist in Puerto Rico and writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper.
All of her books are written originally in Spanish and have been broadly translated to English and other languages.
She lives in Puerto Rico.