Novels are chronicles of heartbreak; the greater the novel, the greater the heartbreak. The first and greatest novel, Don Quixote, ends with the greatest heartbreak: the protagonist’s recovery of his sanity, which saddens the friends around his deathbed and readers as well, as we see the Don awaken from “the impossible dream,” then die.
In Mayra Montero’s masterful Dancing to “Almendra”, some of the characters enter the story already heartbroken, and their bodies are broken too. Yolanda, the nightclub worker, lost an arm in a sword trick gone wrong when she was a magician’s assistant. Rodney, the choreographer at Havana’s famous Tropicana, is a leper whose body is actually breaking off in pieces.
But Yolanda’s mutilation is nothing compared to the pain she will suffer when she confesses her love to Rodney, who is gay. Yolanda is willing to endure his leprosy and his homosexuality because her love is that strong. Yet all her declaration does is trigger Rodney’s confession of his own heartbreak, long ago, when he lost the beautiful Swedish boy who was his lover and whom he likely infected with leprosy. Yolanda is devastated.
But heartbreak, in Montero’s world of Havana nightlife in the late ’50s, doesn’t end there. Joaquin, a Havana youth from a well-off family, doomed to nurse his dreams of being an ace reporter while he writes showbiz profiles and human interest stories for the city’s most prestigious — and conservative — newspaper, makes an incredible discovery: the connection between the escape of a hippopotamus from the Havana zoo and the killing in the New York Park Sheraton Hotel’s barbershop of the notorious mafioso Umberto Anastasia.
Sleuthing plunges Joaquin into the underworld, as the top mobsters plot to divide up the new gambling business flourishing in Havana. The investigation will take him to New York, but not before Joaquin, who is drawn to older women, falls for the one-armed Yolanda, who was earlier hooked up with. … But why give away any more of the plot? This is, after all, a crime story, and the plot will thicken until it curdles. There are subplots involving a magician and his Chinese assistant; a zoo worker who feeds pieces of human bodies to the beasts; and an older woman, Aurora, the first to break Joaquin’s heart, who dances the famous danzon “Son de Almendra,” with an even older man, Meyer Lansky.
Storylines entwine until they become one strong cord that will either strangle Joaquin or save him from drowning. Indeed, cords, or at least lines with hooks on them, are a leitmotif that emerges time and again in the novel. Characters use many imaginary hook-and-lines to ensnare each other sexually and bring about a downfall. As in a Greek tragedy, everything seems predestined from the beginning by capricious gods.
It’s worth remembering that the first detective story of Western literature is not a novel or even Poe’s short story “The Murders at the Rue Morgue” — often cited as the first of the genre, when all it did was to set down its conventions — but the mother of all tragedies: “Oedipus Rex.” The original noir hero, Oedipus sets out to find out the truth, only to sow grief and destruction in his wake — and to learn that he is the guilty party he was seeking.
Joaquin solves the mystery, but so what? His heart is broken as much as everyone else’s, plus he gets a couple of fierce beatings and some really terrible scares. And history runs on a bigger track than a rookie journalist sleuth or even the top capi of the American mob. After all, this is Cuba in the late ’50s, and so one unnamed character plays a bigger role than anyone else: Fidel Castro.
In the end, even a big-time mobster such as Santos Trafficante will wind up in Castro’s jail, though he will be released. The American mafia will not return to Cuba, nor will any other Americans, innocent or guilty. The Revolution will run over Joaquin, Yolanda, Rodney, the mafiosi, everybody.
But before that happens, what a story! Montero has played her usual sleight-of-hand. Yes, Anastasia was hit at the barbershop of the Park Sheraton, “his face smothered with lather, like a partially decorated cake.” And, yes, a hippo did escape from the Havana zoo. But not on the same day, nor did the events have anything to do with each other. Montero is playing with the reader by mixing reportage — she is, after all, a journalist — with imagination.
And, most definitely, Rodney was gay, and he did suffer from leprosy, but most of all he was the greatest choreographer in the golden age of Havana’s nightclub life.
Real detail is piled on real detail, piled on imagination. The doomed loves of Dancing to “Almendra” are Montero’s imaginings. Or are they? In a teasing author’s note, which begins with the usual acknowledgements of thanks to those who helped Montero research this historical novel, she ends by thanking Meyer Lansky’s old bodyguard and driver. “Through him,” Montero writes, handing the reader the final blow, “I learned that Lansky fell madly in love with a beautiful Cuban who lived on the Paseo del Prado. Late in 1957 precisely when the novel takes place he moved in with her. Her name was not Aurora.”