Havana Year Zero. Karla Suárez. Translated by Christina MacSweeney. Edinburgh. Charco Press. 2021. 256 pages.
In Cuba in 1993, daily life was a series of mathematical calculations. There were the calculations of rations: if an adult is entitled to four eggs every ten days and someone wanted to consume protein other than peas each day, what fraction of one egg could they consume each morning? There was the ongoing count of loved ones who had emigrated, the computation of the percentage of friends who remained (for now), and above all, the calculation of the odds that things would ever improve.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which ended the subsidies that had bolstered the country against the US blockade, the Cuban economy entered a profound crisis, a time the government called the Special Period. To address this crisis, the government instituted a series of drastic measures to restructure the economy, including strict rations on food, clothing, fuel, and medications. By 1993, even more drastic austerity measures were required to keep the country afloat. Store shelves stood empty, power outages occurred daily, and transportation was nearly non-existent.
“It was as if we’d reached the minimum critical point of a mathematical curve,” explains Julia, the narrator in Karla Suárez’s Havana Year Zero (Charco Press, translated by Christina MacSweeney). “Imagine a parabola. Zero point down, at the bottom of an abyss. That’s how low we sank.” For Julia, a mathematician stuck in an unsatisfying job with no possibility of finding another, this was Year Zero; the year life became such a struggle, Cubans were desperate for any excuse to hope things might get better tomorrow. At least, such was the case for Julia and the other “variables” in an equation involving an Italian, a lost document, and the question of who actually invented the telephone.
The mystery at the center of the novel—and the flicker of hope that Julia and the other characters chase after—is the identity of the owner of a document that might prove the telephone was not invented in the United States by Alexander Graham Bell, but by an Italian named Antonio Meucci who built the prototype while living in Havana.
Julia first hears the name Antonio Meucci while having dinner with some friends. It is late, they have already been drinking, talking, and dancing for hours, so when Leonardo, a writer, names the Italian as the true inventor of the device, Julia initially disregards his words as drunken blather. But when she mentions it to her friend Euclid the next day, she learns he has been secretly obsessed with correcting the historical record. Euclid’s enthusiasm and conviction that proof exists—he personally has held the document with the diagrams in his hands!—win Julia over and she decides to join the detective mission. She imagines publishing an article in a prestigious scientific journal, traveling the world giving interviews, and finally being able to advance in her career. “That simple piece of paper,” she says, “might have the power to raise us out of anonymity and give meaning to each day of that Year Zero.” In her mind, the document becomes a golden ticket out of the hardship of the Special Period. She just has to find it.
What begins as a straightforward mission quickly turns complex, as an expanding cast of characters come into the equation, each with their own reasons for seeking the document and for lying about their relation to it. What’s more, love and sex come into play, and with them, human emotions that flout any attempt to inscribe them within calculated formulas.
Havana Year Zero is, in part, a comedy of errors that unfolds according to fractal logic, where relations and events are reproduced on ever smaller scales. By the novel’s conclusion, even Julia’s quest coheres to the macro logic of the Special Period itself, where politicians praise the country’s social unity while turning a blind eye to the divides created by black markets, massive emigration, and a dual currency system.
Suárez’s sharp, engaging prose grows organically out of a clear and unique narrative voice. Julia’s perspective is deeply ingrained in every word she speaks, every event she relays, all of which are shaped by her training in mathematical reasoning. She stands alongside the reader in our weariness of coincidence until scientific inquiry resolves her (and our) doubts and includes sharp-eyed observations that extend to word choice and diction when she relates what other characters have told her. Christina MacSweeney’s translation deftly reproduces Julia’s speech and narrative style as well as the conversational tics of the other characters with such skill that an anglophone reader could be forgiven for forgetting that Suárez did not write the novel in English. Julia exists naturally on the page as an English speaker, while retaining the cultural touches that firmly identify her as a Cuban woman telling the story of a particular moment in that country’s history.
At the end of the novel, as Julia looks back on her mission to locate the Meucci document, she says this about the effect of Year Zero on Cubans: “We were hanging on to our illusions, living one more dream, in a state of chaos, and chaos is a vortex that sucks everything in.” She is a woman of science, for whom logic forms the bedrock of her reasoning, but crises, like the one Cubans endured during the Special Period, weaken even the most serious mathematician’s ability to discern fiction from reality. “[G]ive me a crisis,” she tells the reader, “and I can tell you which illusion to cling to.” As we mark the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic and celebrate the health care workers and senior citizens who receive the vaccine, Julia might wonder if the hope that things might soon return to “normal” is nothing more than the illusion we need to cling to in order to endure the present crisis.
Translated by Gabriela Zayas Alom
Gabriela Zayas Alom is a graduate student in Translation and Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. She is originally from Cuba and Puerto Rico.