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, Joaquín 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, Joaquín 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 Joaquín'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. Based on the true history of a bewitching city and its denizens, Almendra is the latest "triumph" (Library Journal) from one of Latin America's most impassioned and intoxicating voices.
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Mayra Montero is the author of a collection of short stories and of eight novels, including, most recently, Captain of the Sleepers (FSG, 2005). She was born in Cuba and lives in Puerto Rico, where she writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
On the same day Umberto Anastasia was killed in New York, a hippopotamus escaped from the zoo in Havana. I can explain the connection. No one else, only me, and the individual who looked after the lions. His name was Juan Bulgado, but he preferred to be called Johnny: Johnny Angel or Johnny Lamb, depending on his mood. In addition to feeding the animals, he was in charge of the slaughter pen, that foul-smelling corner where they killed the beasts that were fed to the carnivores. A long chain of blood. That's what the zoo is. And, very often, life.
Juan Bulgado isn't dead, he lives in an old-age home, he's forgotten that his nom de guerre is Johnny, and the nuns who take care of him call him Frank, later I'll tell you why. When I met him, in October of '57, he was close to forty. I think he turned forty in the middle of the crisis. But I was very young, I'd just gone through the calamity of my birthday party, number twenty-two, celebrated in a way that was very like the twenty-one that preceded it: Mamá on her cloud, a little dizzy because of the Marsala All'uovo, the only liquor she was in the habit of drinking back then; Papá with his arm around my older brother, an engineer like him, both of them smoking their H. Upmann torpedoes; and my sister, seventeen and uncomfortable in her lace-trimmed dress. The three of us were very different from one another, with a father who was similar to my older brother, and a mother who wasn't similar to anyone: ungainly, tense, a smoker, with a voice like hysterical glass and hair that was totally white. As far back as I can remember, she'd had white hair, and probably turned gray even before she gave birth to me. She might have been an interesting woman, but the women who were her friends considered her tiresome. And the children of her friends, some of them my classmates, took care to pass that opinion along to me.
Anastasia died, riddled with bullets, in the Park Sheraton Hotel at Seventh Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street in New York, sitting in a mournful barber's chair, his face still smeared with lather, like a partially decorated cake. The news came in on the Teletype. No one at the paper supposed it would interest me, because my job for the previous year and a half and for who knows how much longer, had been interviewing performers: singers, dancers, actors. Comedians generally are conceited and have very bad characters. I didn't like what I did, I despised that kind of lightweight journalism, but I had no alternative when I began working at the Diario de la Marina, on the recommendation of one of my father's friends. All the positions I would have preferred were already filled, and all they needed was some moron who'd be happy to find out what new plans were hatching in the empty little head of Gilda Magdalena, the blondest of our vedettes; or which harem Kirna Moor, a Turkish dancer who packed them in at night at the Cabaret Sans Souci, had escaped from; or which orchestra would accom-pany Renato Carosone, an Italian clown who sang the absurd "Marcelino Pan y Vino," which played constantly on the radio.
I tore the cable about the death of Anastasia out of the Teletype and ran to the managing editor, an animal with the voice of an overseer, whose name was Juan Diego.
"Did you see this?" I handed him the paper. "I bet heads'll roll. Right here in Havana, I think that--"
Juan Diego put his index finger to his mouth to make me be quiet, took the cable from my hand, and read two or three lines before tossing it on his desk.
"Who cares?" he hissed with disdain. "Who gives a damn if they killed that fat pig?"
He paused, scribbled a note on another cable, and realized I was still there, nailed to the floor, clutching at a final hope that I could cover more substantial news.
"Don't you have anything to do?" he asked without looking up, as patronizing as if he were talking to a child.
"Yes," I answered. "I can write an article about the death of Anastasia. I can go to the Hotel Nacional, or to the Placita de los Judíos."
"Go to the zoo." He raised his voice as well as his head: I saw his porcine face, covered with moles. "A hippopotamus escaped and was killed yesterday afternoon. Don't worry about Tirso, I'll tell him I sent you to cover it. Find out what you can."
Tirso was my boss, and he was in charge of the entertainment pages. Skinny, indecisive, with long, thin fingers that resembled leftover vermicelli. His favorite pastime was collecting photos of young girls, sixteen- or seventeen-year-old singers or actresses who came out of nowhere and so often had to return there. One attracted him more than any other; her name was Charito, and whenever the photographer from the paper took her picture, he had to make a set of additional copies for Skinny T., which was what they called my boss. Then I'd see him place the photos in a portfolio, and I imagined that when he got home, in the quiet of the night, he'd spread them out on the bed and stare at them, a bachelor who undressed as he looked at them. I liked actresses too, but older ones. Women of thirty or thirty-five who would treat me very calmly, talk without being stupid, and from time to time let me go to bed with them. Several did let me. It was the only really exciting thing about that wretched job.
I left the paper and headed for the zoo. In those days I drove a '49 Plymouth that had belonged to my father, and then my brother inherited it, until he began to earn money and could buy what he called "thunder for two," which was simply a 1957 Thunderbird. I parked a few yards from the entrance. I hadn't been back to the zoo for many years, almost ten years, not since the last time my mother had taken my sister and me there. Back then my sister was a good-natured, enterprising little girl in whom a man's forms, gestures, and preferences were already beginning to make their appearance.
Unlike her, I never had a fondness for animals, not even dogs. The stink of the zoo irritated me, and I didn't see the charm of giraffes or elephants, much less flamingos. I have no idea why there were so many flamingos there. It didn't matter how brightly colored or nice an animal might be, I lacked and still lack the sensibility to feel affection for any of them. Going back to the zoo under those circumstances seemed somehow shameful to me: I had to find the place where the hippopotamus had been killed, interview the director, the animal's keeper, perhaps a few children. Readers, for the most part, are so perverse that they're interested in the opinions of kids. For the moment those were the limits of my brilliant career: to write about a rotting animal and forget that Umberto Anastasia, the Great Executioner of Murder, Inc., had been killed in New York, almost certainly for sticking his nose into Havana's affairs. A wonderful story that somebody else would write. Or nobody else. Newspaper owners avoided getting anywhere near those subjects.
I ran into a groundskeeper right at the entrance to the zoo, and he took me to the director's office. As I walked through the park, certain images from my childhood came to mind: paths full of puddles, cotton candy, a badly hurt monkey dying inside a cage, all of this colored by my mother's ridiculous reproaches as she made useless attempts to correct my sister's behavior. When she failed, she blamed my father. "I'm going to have a mannish daughter," she'd complain to him in my presence, perhaps in my brother's presence, never in front of the girl, "and you, Samuel, you don't seem to care at all." My father didn't respond, he behaved as if he hadn't heard her, in his heart he knew there was nothing to do about his daughter. Lucy was his third son packed into a robust female body. A misfortune like any other.
The director of the zoo didn't look like the director of any zoo, at least I wouldn't have imagined one looking like this: well-groomed and distant, a withdrawn little man with a soft face that wore half a grimace of disgust; I knew right away he was disgusted, but I had no idea why. When I walked into his office, he was holding his hat; I assumed he was about to put it on and go out. We spoke for a while, he gave me some information about the hippopotamus: he said it was a male that recently had emerged from adolescence; it had been born in a New York zoo and had been in Cuba for about five years, fairly restless, that was true; according to the keeper it had always been a nervous animal. If I wanted to take a photograph, an employee would be happy to accompany me to the place it had fallen and where it was still lying, waiting for an examination by the forensic veterinarian. As for the rest, it was too soon to determine if it had escaped because somebody let it out or if the animal on its own had charged and trampled the fences, since they were inclined to wander at night. As he was speaking, I suppose he guessed my boredom at being there, and he changed his tone, looked me up and down, and asked, with some sarcasm, if I wanted to take the animal's picture or if what he'd told me was enough. I replied that it wasn't enough, I wanted to interview the keeper and take a few photographs.
"I'll have someone go with you," he said.
He went to the door and called for somebody named Matías. A bearded, toothless old man, whose stink caught in my nose like a fishhook, responded. Without introducing us, the director ordered him to take me first to the pond that had been occupied by the hippopotamus and then to the edge of the wood that surrounded the zoo, where the animal had been cordoned off. The old man looked at me with curiosity; I carried a notebook in my hand and had a camera hanging from my shoulder.
"Come this way," he said, and I followed him in silence, swearing to myself that I'd finish up as soon as I could. When we reached the pond, I saw another animal wallowing in the water.
"It's the female," the old man ann...
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