Dancing to "Almendra," by Mayra Montero
(translated by Edith Grossman)
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007)
"Havana, 1957. On the same day that the Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is assassinated in a barber's chair in New York, a hippopotamus escapes from the Havana zoo and is shot and killed by its pursuers. Assigned to cover the zoo story, Joaquin Porrata, a young Cuban journalist, instead finds himself embroiled in the mysterious connections between the hippo's death and the mobster's when a secretive zookeeper whispers to him that he 'knows too much.' In exchange for a promise to introduce the keeper to his idol, the film star George Raft, now the host of the Capri Casino, Joaquin gets information that ensnares him in an ever-thickening plot of murder, mobsters, and, finally, love.
"The love story is, of course, another mystery. Told by Yolanda, a beautiful ex-circus performer now working for the famed cabaret San Souci, it interleaves through Joaquin's underworld investigations, eventually revealing a family secret deeper even than Havana's brilliantly evoked enigmas.
"In Dancing to 'Almendra,' Mayra Montero has created an ardent and thrilling tale of innocence lost, of Havana's secret world that is 'the basis for the clamor of the city,' and of the end of a violent era of fantastic characters and extravagant crimes."
"On the same day Umberto Anastasia was killed in New York, a hippopotamus escaped from the zoo in Havana."
Awesome as that opening line is, I think this was one of those books I'd hoped to like a lot more than I did. More good writing (how I wish I could produce it instead of just recognizing it, but sadly, whatever facility with words I once had, I don't have two original thoughts to rub together), and certainly Batista-era Havana is as much a character in the novel as anyone else. Noir isn't really my favorite genre, though, so I'm probably not the person who'd get the most from this book.