In the Embrace of the Alligator

BC Bookworld, Summer 21-25, 2011
AMANDA HALE’S In the Embrace of the Alligator primarily describes the love affair between a Canadian woman and a Cuban man, revealing complications of a romance between people of different backgrounds. The title is derived from the fact that Cuba is often perceived geographically, on a map, as resembling the shape of an alligator. Embrace also outlines the shape of a love affair between a foreigner and Cuba itself. Whether readers have been to Cuba or not, they will be fascinated to discover the personalities, beliefs, customs and everyday struggles of life in Cuba through this collection of short fiction.

RECOVERING FROM THE DEATH OF HER brother, Karina, an artist from Toronto, initially goes to Cuba to create and display art in Havana. In the first story, “First Steps, Last Steps,” Hale describes music, sickness, tourism, slavery, broken bodies, dance, filth, warmth, politics, romance and hunger. After her exhibition opening, on a side trip to Baracoa — the second oldest European settlement in the Americas, located on the eastern end of Cuba — Karina meets Onaldo. They dance, drink, eat, and rapidly fall in love.

Karina soon discovers that differences in laws, cultures and finances can make relationships a challenge. Cuba’s economy depends on tourists, and there are laws that prohibit local people from becoming romantically involved with foreigners—to protect the tourists. Cubans are granted fewer freedoms than visitors, and they face restrictions on travel and staying in tourist accommodations. Relationships happen anyway, often to the detriment of one party or the other; but equally often mutually advantageous. Many blind eyes are turned in this country, readers are told.

When it comes to romance in Cuba, the lines between genuine feelings and adventures for personal gain can be blurred. Cubans know what a romance with a foreigner can mean for both themselves and their extended family. This collection consequently features many uncomfortable conversations about money. Such talk inevitably arises in the face of financial disparity. Needs and desires can turn to greed in cross-cultural relationships. In “Creative Non-Fiction,” Onaldo concocts a tale to tell Karina about the money she has given to him for travel, and how it was ostensibly being stolen. He knows that she will take pity on him and give him more.
Meanwhile, Onaldo’s ex-wife dismisses Onaldo’s relationship with Karina as “yet another affair.” Onaldo continues to use Karina’s money to improve the home of his ex-wife, with whom he is also living. To a point, Karina understands that she is being taken advantage of, but feels guilty after she confronts Onaldo. She cannot resist him even after she learns how he’s spending her money.

Rosamund, a German visitor, faces a similar situation. That’s not to say that everyone takes advantage of their foreign friends and their wealth, but sexual exploitation is a lurking threat in many such relationships portrayed in this collection.

The advantage-taking can go either way. In one memorable story, “Her New Red Dress,” Linancia, a Cuban woman, gets involved with an Italian man who has a wife and children at home. Luigi treats Linancia terribly, but in the end she is forced to come back to him. We later learn she has given up her job in order to be available to him whenever he’s in Cuba. Having gained the freedom to quit a job she hated, she entered into a new kind of servitude.

Karina also learns that many things that are simple to do in Canada — such as booking a hotel room, buying a lettuce, or leaving the country — are governed by strict rules and double standards in Cuba. A Cuban who has purchased an airline ticket can be bumped off the flight in favour of a foreigner right up until the moment the flight takes off.

In “El Caballo de Rosamund,” Rosamund loves the Revolution and everything else about Cuba until she learns that she is not allowed to buy the horse of her dreams. Fear is a rampant force for both subservience and subterfuge in Cuba. In one story, an arrest sends the rest of the town of Barbacoa into hiding. “Barbacoa became a warren of creatures running scared, disappearing into their burrows . . . ”

Disconnections between foreigners and Cubans abound, in language, politics, and attitudes. Part of it is simply the difference between a person on vacation and a person living their regular life. Much of it runs deeper. In “Senora Amable Ponce,” a story named for the hostess of a place Karina and Onaldo stay during a romantic rendezvous, Karina feels in the air “a kind of energetic laziness soaked in eroticism.” These feelings are in sharp contrast to their hosts’ urgencies, and their tiredness. Their hostess Senora Amable is “a wounded woman struggling to main-tain her dignity.” Several times in this story staff try to urgently communicate something, but Karina never figures out what it is. Karina struggles to understand the Senora’s Spanish; and the Senora does not try to help her understand. A fellow guest who does not speak Spanish is described as being on his own island. The story ends with a literal disconnect: the Senora’s phone line goes dead.

In a haunting, lovely story, Mirian Zelda lives next door to the funeral parlour in Baracoa, very much in tune with the comings and goings. At night, when she sleeps, she is visited by the recently deceased, and her role is to guide them home to their final resting place. The gentle character of Mirian, the prevalence of spirituality and religion, the mystery of a vanished Czech visitor, and the fact that the gore of the funeral parlour is not disguised, and death is not hid-den and sterile as in our society, are all factors in making this story memorable.

Amanda Hale has clearly spent a lot of time in Cuba. One assumes or feels that she has experienced versions of many of these stories first-hand. She has come to know and understand aspects of Cuban society that tourists in resorts don’t always see, and has used her experiences to create a rewarding collection. Her writing is strong and sensuous. We are given some intimacy with the heart of complex Cuban life. — Erinna Gilkison