Oh Havana! That aging but incorrigibly naughty Caribbean grande dame is as much a central character in Zoé Valdés’s novel, I Gave You All I Had, as Cuquita Martinez, the working-class Chinese mestiza beauty whose turbulent love story is intertwined with the city’s fate under Fidel Castro. I’ve never been to Havana, but theHavana-born, Paris-based novelist’s elegiac portraiture reminded me of the Manila I grew up in, so I readily understood her longing for that balmy, sinfully sensual seaside port. Valdés’s familiar representations of Havana—languorous days and nights, a Babylon of dance clubs, cabarets, and bars, flashy men and women—could easily be viewed as shopworn. But Valdés has an intimate feel for the city’s fleshy secrets which lifts her sense of loss above sentimentality and cliché.
Using language that can be dizzying, Valdés joins Cuquita’s and her shady lover Juan’s narrative with that of Havana, mostly after the 1959 revolution. Naive but passionately fierce, Cuquita falls hard for Juan (or, as she coos, her Uan and only), whom she meets at the cabaret Montmartre when she’s brought there by two lovable tarts, La Puchu and La Mechu. However, it is not until eight years later and shortly before Fidel’s triumph that Cuquita and Uan consummate their love; by then Uan is Edith Piaf’s PR man in Havana, and involved with the Mafia.
Their intense relationship gets periodically interrupted (though never the coitus) by his trips. When they make love, they “fuck like savages” with Uan swearing eternal love after each orgasm, “dying of love—for her and for his city. As if a city and a woman were one and the same, as if cities had a uterus.” The revolution, however, radically changes their lives. Uan flees to the U.S., leaving Cuquita behind, pregnant with Reglita.
At first, Cuquita—who eventually contracts cancer, a condition mirroring the city’s decline—participates in the endeavor to remake society. She works in literacy campaigns and helps raise food crops. But disillusionment quickly sets in for Cuquita and her pals: “We ate shit, wore off the soles of our shoes, marched in the parade of the zealous, lived in the Age of Happiness. Fucked ourselves over, fighting for someone else’s illusion, the dreams of others.”
Valdés clearly blames Fidel for Havana’s misery. At one point, a dove shits on him; he’s alternately referred to as XXL (Extra Extra Large) and “the onion; they say he’s the reason Cuban women weep in their kitchens.” Under Castro Havana becomes a nightmare, a breeding ground for hustlers and vermin. Here Valdés adds a fabulist touch, where Cuquita domesticates a cockroach and a rat. This could be charming, but it jars. Are we supposed to believe in a realist critique of Cuban society under Fidel—one that takes no account of the U.S. embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union—while also believing that an insect and a rodent not only communicate with Cuquita but find love together? As a metaphor this could work powerfully—only vermin can be happy under such circumstances—but the literalness undermines such an approach.
Throughout, Cuquita clings to her love for the self-exiled Uan as a refuge for her battered psyche. When he returns to Havana after 30 years, in a deal worked out with the Cuban government, the two are reunited, and he bonds with the grown-up daughter he’s never seen. Their reunion is one of the novel’s most touching scenes: “The three of us disappear in an embrace, kissing without restraint. But alert, suspicious as cats. Expecting a claw to strike, separation, betrayal. We sit with our backs to the sea, facing the city; we watch her stretch her golden, humid limbs and rise as if out of a box, like a patient who, after a long coma, suddenly awakens and complains that the light is hurting her eyes.”
Valdés’s linguistic razzle-dazzle (captured marvelously in Nadia Benabid’s translation) may be tireless but it can also be tiresome, resulting at times in a hyperventilating narrative. The points of view are many and often confusing; the tone hardly varies from character to character. Yet the sheer energy of Valdés’s anger-soaked valentine to Fidel overrides such flaws with a truly moving story. Her Siamese-twin bittersweet portraits of Havana and Cuquita, with their hints of love’s redemptive powers, force us to see how the very thin line between affairs of the state and those of the heart leads to this truth: how the former can be undone by the love of revolution and the latter by the revolution of love.