Dirty South

Talking with Arnaldo Correa, godfather of Cuban Noir

Arnaldo Correa was born in the Escambray Mountains of Cuba in 1935. He studied mining engineering at the University of Alabama in the 1950s and published his first book of short stories, praised by Fidel Castro, in 1966. Brooklyn-based press Akashic Books published the 2005 paperback edition of his novel Spy's Fate as well as his 2003 novel Cold Havana Ground. Correa is considered one of the founders of the Cuban crime-fiction genre.

Are you at ease with the designation "Godfather of Cuban noir"? I guess. It sounds better than "Grandfather of Cuban noir." In 1986, the International Crime Fiction Writers Association (AIEP) in Havana presented me with a certificate alerting me that I had written the first book of Cuban crime stories 20 years earlier.

Gorky Park author Martin Cruz Smith said of your novel Spy's Fate: "Rich in details and, alas for Cuban spies, all too true." How did you get so much information on Cuba's ultra-classified General Intelligence Directorate? I belong to the generation that made the Revolution. A lot of my friends, my classmates, and members of my family were very much involved in the struggle against Batista's regime and the events that followed thereafter. So I could write about many things I knew first-hand and had the opportunity to talk to many good friends about other situations as well. [Spy's Fate] was written to tell the American public about the U.S.-Cuba clash from the point of view of a Cuban. I have not translated it into Spanish and the novel is practically unknown in Cuba, among other things because it increases the chances of me getting into trouble for what is said there. Keep that secret, please . . .

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    Which is the most secretive Cuban society: Santería, Palo Monte, Abakuá, or the Ministry of the Interior? Abakuá is the most secretive by far. Most people who know this society are afraid of the Abakuás because they take justice in their own hands. While writing the teleplay that gave birth to Cold Havana Ground, I received several death threats. Finally, they were pleased with the episode, shown on a very popular weekly police serial named Día y Noche.

    Do you remain active as a mining engineer? In 1961 I was among a group of engineers who met with Ché Guevara to discuss the creation of a water conservation organization. I spent my next eight years on that task. Since then I have had to change profession several times, the last to economist. But I have managed to remain faithful to one job: My first short story was published when I was 17, and since then I haven't stop writing.

    How have you and your family weathered the ups and downs of the Cuban Revolution, the "Special Period," the hurricanes? Up to the end of the 1980s my engineer's salary was enough to support my wife and three kids. My trips abroad and the occasional visits of my wife's mother, who lived in Miami, brought the necessary dollars for the replacement of a refrigerator and other housewares, besides fancy clothing for the kids always in need. Then in 1991 came the collapse of everything. This is the period I depict in Spy's Fate. Things have improved a lot since then. Nevertheless, earning what is needed to live in Cuba is still the work of a magician.

    Fidel Castro was an early admirer of your fiction. Have you ever met him? In 1963, a hurricane caused big floods in eastern Cuba with a toll of over 2,000 dead. Soon after, I was heading a reconstruction effort of over 200 Russian, Bulgarian, and Cuban engineers, and Fidel came often to visit the construction sites. In 1966, on one of these visits, he read my first book and praised it, especially one story that he still spoke about 25 years later. One day, in a meeting of the Ministers' Council, Fidel asked why I hadn't published anything in a long time. I told him I had too much work. He called the attention of the ministers and said: "Here we have lost a very good writer and gained a lousy engineer."

     
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