- The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke, and: The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba by Brin Jonathan Butler
Brin Jonathan Butler begins his Domino Diaries (2015) with an epigraph from Italo Calvino: “Cities, like dreams,” he writes, “are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Though not written about Havana, the passage feels relevant here, where paranoia and utopia intertwine so easily. As the uncertainties (if not the difficulties) of Cuba’s “Special Period” fade into twilight, paranoia and utopia are central concerns of Butler’s Diaries and Julia Cooke’s The Other Side of Paradise (2014), books whose narrators wrestle with their own desires and fears as foreigners on a seemingly forbidden island.
Cooke and Butler address similar questions, examining the sometimes-irreconcilable gaps between personal ambition and patriotism for Cubans. Butler focuses on world-class boxers, some of whom opted to stay in conditions of relative poverty, despite multimillion-dollar offers abroad. Cooke takes a broader approach, tackling young people—“the last generation raised under Fidel”—as they contemplate their futures on and off the island (8). Both find the socialist project in its current form lacking. Yet both are driven by deeper explorations of their own paranoia as they look beneath Havana’s surface. In peeling back its “layers,” they take different paths, Cooke by charting new social territories, Butler by foregrounding the psychology of his own journey.
At first glance, Butler’s central concern is to examine the price of loyalty for boxers who faced the lure of exile, but on this account, his narrative offers only modest reflections. His boxers hustle in Cuba’s black market like [End Page 398] everyone else he meets, and on their reasons for staying they offer little beyond platitudes about family and pride. To thicken the plot, he weaves his time with athletes into a riff on tropical desire. “I liked the poetry of prostitutes withholding a kiss and giving up all that other stuff,” he writes to frame his efforts (140). In this way, the irony of boxers whose honor compelled them to turn down millions even as they now accept petty cash for interviews becomes a larger exploration of Butler’s romantic turmoil amidst the sexual norms of post-Soviet socialism and tourism in el Caribe.
Indeed, if cities are like dreams, the terms of the Diaries’ urban dream-scape are clear: “Cuba is a wet dream,” Butler learns from a seasoned tourist (50). True to promise, his narrative marches with overwhelming masculinity through classic tropes of imperialist Caribbean encounters. He describes taking a first punch as comparable to the mystery of “the first time you put your dick inside a girl” (20). “Meeting a city for the first time at night is like making love to a woman before you’ve even spoken with her,” we learn (53). The narrative is speckled with mixed-race women as objects, either hideous, “hopelessly beautiful,” or even “peeled off a cigar box” (151, 270). This overpowering id is tempered by self-analysis, but rarely sensitivity. “Femininity here in any permutation,” he elaborates, “overwhelms and intimidates me” (121). As the plot’s central tension of sexual conquest climaxes in an alleged foray with none other than Fidel Castro’s granddaughter, Butler’s misogynist objectification of Cuba is complete.
By contrast, Cooke eschews questions of her own desire, as she populates her account with a range of characters drawn from the bohemian circuits of Havana’s wealthier neighborhoods. Where Butler’s grasp of Cuban slang (and indeed, Spanish) is limited, Cooke’s is encyclopedic. Her keen observations reveal often excruciating calculations as her informants prepare for...