Pedro Juan Gutierrez's first book of linked short stories, Dirty Havana Trilogy, established him as the unofficial spokesman of contemporary Cuba. Havana, as seen through the eyes of Gutierrez's quasi-autobiographical protagonist, Pedro Juan, was a far cry from the dignified, crumbling city of Buena Vista Social Club. It was a humid hell-hole, disintegrating under the strain of real, stinking, destructive poverty.
A disillusioned journalist-turned-hustler, Pedro Juan spent his days chasing dollars, cheap rum and Lycra-clad mulattas, and trying not to think. From his squalid roof terrace in central Havana, he distilled the chaos around him into a series of painful, darkly witty anecdotes. Written at the peak of Cuba's horren- dous economic crisis in the 1990s, the book captured a particularly bitter moment in the country's history. It also struck commercial gold, becoming an international bestseller.
The Trilogy was always going to be a hard act to follow, and the next of Gutierrez's works to be translated into English, the novel Tropical Animal, created less of a splash. It took Pedro Juan from Havana to Stockholm at the invitation of an uptight Swedish girlfriend. Pining for the tropics, he passed the time introducing her to the delights of sadomasochistic sex. The black humour was as sharp as ever but Gutierrez, like Pedro Juan, was a fish out of water.
The Insatiable Spiderman is a return both to Havana and to the more impressionistic short-story format. Pedro Juan is living on the eighth floor of an apartment block with no lift. His diet, consisting principally of toxic rum, coffee and croquettes, or "little flour balls with a slight flavouring of fish", still leaves much to be desired. He is now married to a strait-laced microbiologist called Julia, but their relationship is on the rocks. He hoped she might calm him down, and she did for a while. But now, once again, he's lusting after every pair of firm black buttocks that crosses his path. He still rages at his poverty-stricken surroundings, and occasionally succumbs to depression.
Nevertheless, Pedro Juan has changed. In the Trilogy, he was just as destitute as his neighbours, pimping his girlfriend to tourists and collecting tin cans to survive. Now, he has achieved the unthinkable: he is an internationally recognised writer, and his success sets him apart. He is still poor, but he has found an honest voice and an audience. It has been his salvation, as he announces triumphantly in the first chapter: "Perhaps that's what saved me . . . writing. In the mornings, drunk, I wrote stories about what was happening to me. And I kept going. And here I am."
He is in a unique position. Every other character in the book has been forced to choose between their integrity and their homeland. His friend Gaspar, a formerly brilliant political photographer, is now making a fortune selling inane pictures of Cuban sunsets. "I'm not the stuff of martyrs," he explains unapologetically. "For me there's no more crisis or hunger. Anyone still stuck in the crisis and poverty can fuck themselves and slit their wrists." Pedro Juan is not unsympathetic, but he clearly prides himself on his endurance. He boasts: "At least I'm not a lackey or an arse-licker."
Unfortunately, cruelly perhaps, Pedro Juan's gain is his readers' loss. The Insatiable Spiderman packs less of a punch than Dirty Havana Trilogy. The searing desperation and hopelessness that made the earlier work so compelling have given way to a more detached, observational style. In several of these stories, Pedro Juan simply describes a scene unfolding in front of him - a lazy wife and her hyperactive husband on the beach, a young boy watching a hearse from the window of a bus. The anecdotes are interesting only in an anthropological sense; the reader feels little emotional connection with the characters.
The most powerful stories here focus on Pedro Juan's turbulent relationship with Cuba's authoritarian regime. The Trilogy was a scathing critique of the communist system, but the politics were always implied rather than spelt out. Now, bolstered by his international reputation, Gutierrez feels able to criti-cise more freely:
I try to forget that there is always someone controlling, expressing an opinion on and deciding on our lives. It isn't good to remember this, because the tiger inside me becomes enraged. And that's terrible. I can become vengeful and savage. I can lose control. And in the jungle, if you lose control, you die. No losing control. Be cunning.
This book is testimony to Gutierrez's control, integrity and intelligence. Unfortunately, he appears to have little left to say.