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book review

A promising yarn of stifling, police-state Cuba, sadly muddled

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/file

Novelist and poet Wendy Guerra’s “Revolution Sunday’’ is a work about paranoia, authoritarianism, and the impossibility of free minds under surveillance. But I’ll be honest. What I will remember most about it is the pee.

Take a deep breath and read these sentences aloud: “A golden iridescent string appears like an arrow, the smell of cologne breaks through the tiles. The magic string lands and connects me with life: water on water; I wake up and mark my turf.”

Whether you should read “Revolution Sunday’’ depends on your reaction to that passage. If you found it lyrical, then this is the book for you. If you (like me) said, “What? Ew,” then you should leave now. The whole thing is like this: Getting high is “[s]urrenduring to the mystic smoke.” A bed shared by lovers is an “immense combat zone . . . splattered with our ardor.”


What could be a restive, paranoid novel about the effects of Cuban state surveillanceis marred by a need for exaggerated poeticism at all costs, including coherence. “Revolution Sunday’’ should be exciting: There are gunshots and glamorous parties, spies and traitors, kidnappings and affairs. At one point, Sting appears at the narrator’s door, clutching an in-flight magazine. But instead the novel feels muted and muddled.

The narrator, a poet named Cleo, has spent a year in bed, depressed over the deaths of her parents in a mysterious car crash. What finally rouses her is the need to go to Spain to collect a literary award. When she returns she discovers her house has been bugged. (Guerra similarly came under surveillance in her homeland after winning the Bruguera Novel Prize in 2006.)

The men who visit her act like old friends, but she knows they are informants. Increasingly she begins to doubt what she knows about her parents. Paranoia mounts. “I felt naked and observed in the heart of my house,” she writes, infected by “the sickness that is Cuba.”


A partial salvation appears in the form of Gerónimo, an actor who shows up at her door wanting to dig into her family history for a movie. They begin an affair, under the eyes of the intelligence services: “Today, the room is like a baseball stadium . . . Completely exposed in the box, we possess each other. And from there, the public watches the game without scruples. We are blindfolded and they see it as a drill, emotionless, which is why, in the pocket created by our bodies, everything is happening as if we were alone.”

That private pocket recalls George Orwell’s description of totalitarian surveillance in “1984’’: “Nothing was your own, except the few cubic centimetres in your skull.” But, as with Orwell’s centimeters of free mind, Cleo’s pocket of privacy proves permeable, and the state invades every aspect of life, no matter how private. Her house may be full of microphones, but the “truth is that the real microphone — after years of whispering and refraining from saying what you think — the real artifact is already inside you.”

Occasional passages such as these hint at what this novel would look like if bits of pretty incoherence weren’t clogging the drains. Guerra sometimes succeeds in creating a mood: “I felt as lonely as a dog abandoned on the highway,” Cleo writes at one point. Stray details can be captivating: the precise, loving ritual of making Cuban coffee. The way powerful men wear ratty guerrilla fatigues to show off their places in the regime: “Power doesn’t need to show off its luxury,” she explains. “What’s truly luxurious is to own a country and strip it of all style.”


But this plain eloquence is the exception. Take this passage, for instance: “Apocryphal stories and secrets settle on my body, which is a map, a vital drawing, to guide me on a lucid tour that travels from feelings to actions and possesses me.” Is it possible to extract any kind of real meaning from this, or is it just a big perfumed cloud?

Difficult prose has to be earned: There has to be something worthwhile behind it. For instance, this year’s wonderful Booker Prize-winning novel about paranoia and surveillance in Northern Ireland, Anna Burns’s “Milkman,’’ is also opaque and thorny. But there is the sense that her words have real meaning and that the reader’s work to find it is rewarded. So many of Cleo’s thoughts seem to dissolve like mist: “We’re tomorrow. Nobody is in charge of today, no one prepares for the transition. Tomorrow is today and the future doesn’t exist because those who govern us know they’re living their own futures now.”

The novel is dotted with Cleo’s poems, and much of their spirit invades the prose as well. At one point, Cleo describes wandering sleepless through a foreign city, experiencing what she calls the “lethargy from which poetry is born.” Some poets talk about muses, or divine inspiration. Cleo’s starting point is lethargy. I circled the word frantically. Finally, something in “Revolution Sunday’’ seemed to make complete, perfect sense.



By Wendy Guerra

Translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas

Melville House, 191 pp., paperback, $16.99

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Annalisa Quinn is a freelance reporter and critic.