annotation by Miriam González-Poe
“Desire proves itself most eloquently and painfully. Desire is God, and God is desire,” writes Carlos Eire in his memoir about growing up at the onset and during the turbulent times of the Cuban Revolution of the 1960s. Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy recounts Mr. Eire’s genteel and privileged beginnings as a child of Cuba’s old aristocracy and continues cataloguing the chaotic halt to a way of life that ended with Fidel Castro’s take over of Batista’s regime in 1959, and, the author’s subsequent and unwilling experience as a child of the Peter Pan Project. Mr. Eire writes with great candor and honesty about his family and the people that peppered his life during these formative years. He spares not one of his characters the proper reckoning, the good and bad they represent to him, yet he finds a way to do it with grace, incredible believability and a conversational style of writing that keeps the reader turning the pages to find out what happens next.
Mr. Eire’s descriptions are at once humorous with the innocence of boyhood, and sad with the recollection of boyhood and innocence lost. Through the use of seamlessly flowing flashbacks he constructs a cohesive whole of a manuscript. Descriptions are stark, visceral, and beautifully visual, sometimes bordering on poetic. Mr. Eire has a special gift for the art of metaphor and hyperbole. In chapter after chapter the reader delights to find that what begins as a seemingly innocuous story about a boyhood recollection is really a collective statement of something of much deeper societal meaning and conflict. For example, in chapter 16, Eire relates his young-child fear of becoming “black” were he to eat dark foods that began after Nilda his African Nanny tells him innocently that if he just eats one more bite he will grow up to be “just like her.” Nilda is trying to encourage little Carlos to eat so that he will grow and become an adult, but he gets scared instead, and the fear that he will lose the privileges of his “white” upbringing and turn African become a vessel for the exposition of racism and prejudice. Carlos refuses for months to eat anything dark. Of the day he faced his fear of “dark foods” he writes, “I closed my eyes and took a bite from the chocolate-covered ice-cream bar thinking that this might be my last moment on Earth as a white boy. I savored the ice-cream in my mouth”…. “I had trouble opening my eyes after that first bite. But when I finally opened them, I immediately looked at my hand. I was white. White, as I’d always been. Whew!”…. “They’d been right after all, those that told me that dark food couldn’t turn you into an African.” He concludes the chapter with a powerful metaphor on the prejudice that every individual suffers when coming to a new country as a disenfranchised immigrant: “What they didn’t know was that it would take only one brief plane ride to turn me from a white boy into a spic. And I’m reminded of it every time I have to fill out a form that lists “Hispanic” as a race distinct from “white” or “Caucasian.” It wasn’t any food that stripped me of my whiteness. No just one forty-minute ride over the turquoise sea. Well let me correct myself. Since I flew out of Cuba at sunset, the water wasn’t turquoise at all. It was starting to turn dark blue, and the farther north we flew the darker the water became. By the time we had reached the lights of Key West, the sea was black. Pitch black.”
With a tongue-in-cheekness that belies the seriousness of the subject matter of which he writes, Mr. Eire anoints his characters with a personality that is meant to describe Who-they-really-are in metaphor. He gives each of his characters a loving pseudonym and refers to them as such throughout the manuscript. His father is Louis the XVI, King of France; his mother is Marie Antoinette the tragic and beautiful queen; his Aunt Lucia is the Woman Without Desires. In this manner, Mr. Eire adds to the description of his characters within their quasi-tragic settings without needing to spend time completing it in writing. By comparing his characters to the well-known gods of history, Mr. Eire allows his readers to do the job of completing the characterization of his own characters for him. His use of strategic metaphor continues as the author paints an even grander picture using historical comparisons by pairing French Revolution to Cuban and the falls of the civilized lives within each. Mr. Eire inserts enough personal details to make it interesting yet allows his audience to fill in gaps left to the imagination.
Mr. Eire’s use of first person narrative is conversational and easy to follow, as well. He intersperses dialogue and captures the voice of the 10-year-old boyhood on an idyllic Caribbean island with true believability. His recounting of childhood adventure and feelings is universal and easily relatable. He uses Spanish terms and phrases liberally, but he also takes the time to explain and translate each and every one, and their context, which makes the reading of his narrative that much more enjoyable, evocative, understandable, but most importantly, relatable.
As a writer and a memoirist, there are stories that inspire me in life, and there are stories that inspire me to want to write the stories of my life; then there are those that somehow have the ability to do both. I am always drawn in to stories that tell you their tales with universality of theme despite very personal and specific of topics. This is one of those books. As a writer and a first generation American, I chose this book to read because it was my desire to learn more about my own history. My parents were part of that lost generation of Cuban-Americans who immigrated to the United States during the “Castrolandia” catastrophe that rendered their beloved old Cuba a thing of the past. And this book does tell it like it is (or was) from a first-hand point of view. But the true beauty of Carlos Eire’s writing is not only in that it tells the personal story so well of an often glossed over time in our modern history, it is also rather, in the manner that he incorporates the events of his personal life into universal themes of the human experience, themes of which we can all relate. He is believable, thus he is trustworthy. As writers, we are all striving for authenticity and believability in our writing, no matter what our subjects are. As writers, it is our ultimate goal to have the audience trust us as storytellers. Mr. Eire’s easy skill in this arena makes his work Waiting for Snow in Havana not just an entertaining informative story but a primer for any writer striving to learn the art of creative, authentic memoir writing. His prose flows so easily and effortlessly, that the reader has to remember to pay attention to the art of the writing, lest she forgets herself caught up in the adventure of the reading.
Mr. Eire’s incorporation of Spanish terms and their explanations into the English prose also satisfies. This is a technique that is for many bi-lingual authors not an easy thing to fit into an English manuscript effectively and have it understood implicitly. His manipulation of style, rich with metaphors and similes driving subtle points home in both languages, is so brilliant and visceral at times the reader can almost feel her mouth water with the succulence of it! Mr. Eire’s prose is an all in one: learning tool, enjoyable story, and history lesson.
In Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire creates a satisfying story that is not just a memoir about exile, but about the universal themes of loss, change, adaptation, living life without closure, and the eternal constant of hope. He accomplishes the task of writing a story laced with the realism of tragedy, the mysticism of hope and the universal desire to understand the flow of life events when explanation for those events has become both incomprehensible and absurd. “Is it possible to have a life without desires?” the author writes in Chapter 18. “I refuse to believe it.” Indeed, it is obvious that this story is Mr. Eire’s desire, and his hope. It is a remembrance and tribute to a way of life now extinct, and the author accomplishes his desire, (as he so stated), “most eloquently and painfully,” and to the satisfaction of his audience.