on December 2, 2012
The author of this book is primarily a poet, which is clear in the way this book is written. It's what I believe is called creative non-fiction - the basis is Guerra's diaries which cover the author's youth in Cuba, but this is not an autobiography. The girl in this novel, Nieve (which means "snow" in Spanish), has been living with her artist mother and the mother's Swedish partner when her father is successfully able to gain custody of her, claiming that the home environment is unsuitable (it's true that the Swedish boyfriend hates to wear clothes). The father is alcoholic and abusive. Nieve is forced to live with him in a remote mountain location where he works as a puppeteer for a theater group that puts on shows for the peasants. Nieve's father not only physically abuses her, he woefully neglects her, forgetting to feed her or take her to school, but imposing so many rules that she's unable to care for herself (by asking for food from others, for example). Eventually, the mother regains custody. Nieve spends time in a "re-education" school for ideologically weak youths and also attends a residential school for artists.
Her life is colorful and the book is engaging, but oddly missing are events outside of Nieve's life - the book does not describe what does not directly involve Nieve. Obviously, the austerity of life in Cuba form the ever-present backdrop of Nieve's life, however. The repressive atmosphere, in which no-one can be trusted and the penalties for ideological independence are severe, affect Nieve's life. For example, Nieve and her mother feel most comfortable talking to each other while standing in the lagoon or ocean, so that no-one can evesdrop. Books are hidden out of sight and even young students get into serious trouble for reading banned literature. Nonetheless, the book is curiously apolitical, in that much gets left out of what's actually going on historically. The reader must guess and surmise. Even the years covered by the book are unclear, with few clues.
Later in the book, Nieve's sex life heats up, and the novel moves into erotica, which some readers may love but others be quite uncomfortable with. My reaction was more one of boredom. It was so poetically described that I just found myself skimming these sections (isn't there some group that issues a prize for badly written sex scenes?)
This book was extraordinarily popular in Cuba (although not openly available) and received a major European award. I found it worth reading, as it provided some insight into life in Cuba under Castro. On the other hand, it is far more lyrical than I really like in a novel. In fact, the author includes quite a lot of poetry from other writers. I think if one were to read this book in Spanish, the poetry would be more enjoyable. It's always so difficult to translate poetry - one can, as has been said, do nothing better than to write an homage to the original poem. Translation just doesn't work very well.
Personally, I'm glad I read it but I don't think I would be in a hurry to read more by this author, unless I can master Spanish and read it in the original language.
on January 10, 2013
Nieve, the young Cuban protagonist of Wendy Guerra's novel Everyone Leaves, is a realist. The first hundred fifty or so pages of Guerra's book -- and Nieve's life from childhood to middle adolescence -- can usefully be characterized as a tribute to the value of lack of affect. Don't anticipate the joys of the future. You're bound to be disappointed. Don't be shocked or unduly anguished if your father gets drunk, forgets to feed you, and beats you instead. It comes with the territory. Don't be hurt or even a little surprised if your mother tries to have you committed to a state-run orphanage. After all, she's just as selfish, fearful, and ditzy in her small-time artsy way as your father is brutal, uncaring, and determined to inflict pain. That's just the way it is. The same with schools, institutions that are as impoverished and ill-suited to your own peculiar needs as a young artist beginning to develop her talent as your family, your neighborhood, your community, and your nation: don't expect anything good and you won't be disappointed.
Let's be sure not to misinterpret the overriding import of Nieve's young life. The message is not fear of the future, but unself-conscious indifference. If your world is clearly not the kind of place where good things happen to someone like you, don't expect miracles. Disappointment is the one source of pain over which Nieve has some control, and whether or not she is aware of it, she exercises it almost flawlessly.
With the exception of a one-time-only sexual interlude, Nieve's life is drab, dreary, and totally devoid of energizing sustenance. But Nieve does not complain. No plaintive pleas to God above, to the Virgin Mother, any of the Saints, or the eternal soul of the martyred national hero Che Guevara to deliver her from this meaningless existence. This is just the way things are. If Nieve felt otherwise, certainly we would know it. After all, Everyone Leaves is taken directly from the pages of her diary, the venue in which she pours out her heart and soul, hers and hers alone, uncontaminated by the hypocrisy and phony displays that people use to get along in this aimless world.
In the 1950's, patriotic TV programs in the U.S. portrayed communists in the same way as Nieve, joyless and self-abnegating. Communists were convinced they were building something for future generations to enjoy. Their single-minded, self-less devotion to a difficult utopian cause made them feel and behave like the pod people in the black and white science fiction/horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Devoid of affect and glad of it. Is Nieve a good Cuban communist? Who knows? She goes through the motions. Her commitment, however, could hardly be described as fervent, because that would imply affect and specific expectations which could be realized and celebrated. But Nieve knows that disappointment is a far more likely outcome.
As Nieve gets older the pages in her diary get longer, but the flat affect is undisturbed. Truth be told, after a while it gets annoying. What's the point of having a place where you can pour out your heart and soul if both are determinedly bland, avoiding variation lest you stumble into dangerous territory where one finds hope. Nieve has long since abandoned hope, an essential divestment in protecting herself from a painfully pointless world.
But just as we think we're approaching the end of her flat-lined story, Nieve has thrust upon her the dashing, handsome, talented, privileged, and wild-in-the-streets Osvaldo. He introduces her to affluence, excitement, great sex, and a world filled with talented and famous people from the upper class of this classless society. Nieve, against her better judgment, begins to look forward to leaving Cuba and living in France with Osvaldo. True, his friends are insufferable snobs, threatening to resurrect the old safeguards against disappointment, but given the chance, Nieve can adjust.
Maybe so. But the last, histrionic pages of Everybody Leaves make clear that lack of affect isn't such a bad thing after all. I admit to being confused by the roles played by Osvaldo and his alter ego, Antonio, the one most keenly attuned and painfully involved at the intersection of love and politics in Nieve's life. Nevertheless, it's difficult to see an affect-filled life in the metaphors that close the novel. Beauty, perhaps, but of a cold, empty, and joyless sort.
How does art survive a hostile social and political environment? Can it survive? How does an artist flourish, or even muddle through, when the inspiration and sources for one's art gradually leave, one after another, eventually leaving the artist alone?
These are the questions behind "Everyone Leaves," Cuban writer Wendy Guerra's semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, translated by Achy Obejas. It tells the story of Nieve ("Snow") Guerra, who watches her family and those of her friends fracture and fall apart under the weight of a deadening communist regime. Most eventually leave the country for Miami or Europe (everyone leaves, she keeps reminding herself); some "leave" or disappear within the country.
Nieve is an artist who gradually stops painting. She is also a survivor, due in no small part to the diary she begins to keep as a young child and maintains through adolescence and into young adulthood. The journal entries, in fact, are the structure of the book, beginning as brief if pointed and intelligent observations and continuing as longer entries as Nieve grows older. And there are gaps, which we can fill based on what we know and what we will know.
Through her diary, we follow Nieve from the small city of Cienfuegos to the mountains and finally to Havana. We watch her experience her parents' separation, their custody battle over her, her life with a brutal, alcoholic father, and finally a reunion with her mother. We see her grow as a young artist, and we watch as she continues to behave very much the independent in a society that demands conformity and acquiescence. We observe her friends gradually leave, and her acceptance of her isolation.
The diaries are important. It is through her written (if hidden from others) words that Nieve finds personal survival, the only place she can be herself. She understands the dangers, but the worse danger will be not writing at all.
""Because of what I write," she says, "I hide my Diaries in the loft at home, under the boards. The humidity destroys them, but I copy over the letters with blue ink and I don't write everyday in the new notebooks so they'll last a while...My Diary is a luxury; it's my medicine, what keeps me standing. Without it, I wouldn't live to see twenty. I'm it, it's me. We're both wary."
The words are stark and spare, heightening Nieve's description of isolation and abandonment. There is much she comes to accept, only because she can live in the words of her diary. "Everyone Leaves" is a moving and often disturbing book, written with a sense of detachment, the detachment one needs to survive in a society that flattens individual expression.
on April 13, 2013
In the diaries of a child into womanhood, I felt compassion and was pleased she could find comfort in writing. Later her choices seemed lacking in backbone that I really wanted her to have. I felt anger toward those who should have helped, but didn't. Of course, I really know nothing about the circumstances under which she lived. The diary certainly gives the reader the view into a world different from what most of the readers see and live. The reader must have an open mind and willingness to see beyond the surface of her life. This is a fairly quick read and worth the time as a Kindle choice from Amazon.
Translated from Spanish and lyrically written in the form of a young girl's diary from when she was around age eight in 1978 to about nineteen in 1990 EVERYONE LEAVES is sometimes confusing to follow especially if the reader likes me is not very knowledgeable about life in Cuba. The diarist is Nieve the artistic daughter of talented and unusual parents. Nieve's parents named her for the Spanish word for snow which was a very unique choice for a child born in tropical Cuba. Nieve's life is not an easy ones as both of her parents are unstable (her father an abusive alcoholic) and life in Cuba is full of hardships, deprivations and lack of freedom. EVERYONE LEAVES is an interesting book for what it reveals about Cuba in the last fourth of the twentieth century from the viewpoint of an actual participant but is not an easy or pleasant read.
"Everyone Leaves" is making a big splash. "Translated into 8 Languages," "Winner of the (insert obscure book award), "critically acclaimed." Okay. It's also a little bit pretentious and meandering. As we've all heard, author Wendy Guerra's alter ego Nieve has an abusive alcoholic father. Her mom is a `free spirit' whose lover likes to run around naked at inappropriate times. It is through Nieve's entries in her secret diary that we experience life with a family in chaos and, courtesy of Fidel Castro, a nation turned upside down. By the way, just in case you missed it, along with the ceiling falling on you, there is nice symbolism in the name. Nieve is snow...so alien and unknown in Cuba, so delicate and easily crushed, so..well, you get the drift.
Sorry, I had to do it.
Over the years, Nieve is deserted by everyone she feels connected to...some departures are physical...people die or they go someplace else...Miami, New York, Europe...the post-revolution Cuban diaspora pretty much emptied the nation of anyone with enough money to get a ticket out. Some just abandoned or rejected her. But in the end, all that matters is...they left. Nieve describes her journal as the medicine that helps her survive each loss. It also serves as a record of life in Cuba from the first days of the revolution through the next few decades.
I was not as aware of my greater surroundsings as Nieve appears to be, and I wonder how many children are. Picture this, a little girl is the subject of a vicious custody battle between her parents. She is taken away from a loving mother and forced to live with her alcoholic, uncaring and abusive father. Her existance is controlled by this nasty drunk who is constantly changing the rules. She has no one to turn to, and at the same time is coping with all those other issues that make growing up such a complex and self-involved time of life. And she still manages to keep an eye on the political climate. The most interesting parts of the book, in fact, do deal with the outer turmoil, the day to day changes experienced by ordinary people. And to be fair, many of the changes rung in by the new regime did impact the girl directly. Expressing admiration for Fidel became essential, revolutionary spirit replaced school spirit. And day to day living changed as well. Even so, I remember my diary when I was a girl, and the diaries of friends. They were about us, what we did, what we experienced, what I said to them and what they said to me. That and whining about our parents. No philosophy, no wondering about the greater world. Who had time? At 12 and 13, who cared?
Having said that, I also have to say the book would have benefitted from more of that looking outside herself. Nieve's personal experiences are not unique. What life is painfree? Real life is tough, growing up is not easy, and most of us have experienced abandonment of every variety by the time we are adults. Parents die or get divorced. Some are abusive, some just incompetent.
Tolstoy famously said: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Maybe. But now that everyone and his cousin Fred has done a book revealing their own sad childhood and dysfunctional tribes, we've pretty much run the gamut of bad family situations. Neive's mom's naked boyfriend makes a bit of a change (but please note, he's a good guy; he runs around without his clothes on but not because he's a pervert...he's Swedish) but mostly we've seen it/heard it/read it all before. Memoirs Written By the Children of Abusive Parent Novels could be a specialty genre on Amazon. Like Urban Fantasy or Cozy Mystery.
That's not to say Geurra does not display skill or technique in her writing. In creating this diary, she lets us experience Nieve's own growth from little girl to woman not only by what she says, but also how she says it. At first, her diary entries are somewhat stilted...children tend to write more formally, being taught to do so in school and afraid to venture outside the lines. As she gets older, the style loosens up and the entries become longer, more analytical, more of her personality is revealed. The style changes mirror Nieve's own personal growth. Interesting little gimmick.
There are better books to read if you want to experience the Cuban Revolution from the inside. There are also better books about surviving a painful childhood. Guerra's book is not without merit, it's not among the best of either genre. A generous four stars seems fair.
A note about the translator: Achy Obejas is critically acclaimed writer and poet in her own right. "What Happened in Our Other Life," a collection of her poems, became an international best seller, and her novels usually rate high with critics. Her translation of Guerra's book is easy to read and has that seamless quality that is the hallmark of a good translator. She did an equally good job translating Havana Noir, an excellent collection of crime stories by Cuban writers. Obejas also edited the collection and if you enjoy top notch crime fiction or have an interest in learning more about Cuba, it's a good pick.
This book troubled me, only because as I read it, I didn't feel that it warranted the four star review it was so close to achieving for me. I personally do not consider this to be, as described on the back cover, "Cuba's answer to The Diary of Anne Frank." Wendy Guerra has written Everyone Leaves, a young woman's coming of age via her diary entries and what it meant to her. Some prohibited it's existence until one finally desired it. The novel was inspired by her life in Cuba and reflections from her own personal diary. The premise of a diary becoming a novel is not new and there was no extraordinary approach to its presentation in this work. The youthful narrator, Nieve Guerra has a voice and grammar beyond her eight years of age and a tortured existence that is controlled by spirited parents and a controlled environment. Her teen years are governed by peers, her mother, and the restrictions by her beloved Cuba. The reader isn't introduced to the wider world until they are summarized in the final few pages by another man who has taken Nieve on a journey of discovery, then puts her own life in perspective of the greater. For me, the main weaknesses in this novel are the disjointed chapters, the author's lack of creating a tangible world that was obviously representative of the author's true world, and the fact that her diary didn't cause me care about her. This was tough for me since I know the diary must have been critical in the author's personal development.
This was an enjoyable book although initially I was afraid that I may not actually like it. The book starts out with a young girl sharing a bed with an older man who sleeps in the nude. Mom leaves, dad gets wind of the situation and (obviously) is outraged. Child goes with dad who drinks, forgets to feed the kid and beats her.
Needless to say, it was a troublesome topic. Uncomfortable both in what "was" as well as "could have been". Mom was annoying in her failure to provide basic protection for the girl who later grows up to be a more or less free spirit, artistic talent and eventually...and not suprisingly...the live in girlfriend of a famous artist by her late teens.
The contrast between art, theory, poverty and wealth stand in stark contrast as she moves from one situation to another, never quite gaining control over her own life.
The author has a unique writing style, the book is composed of a series of very short chapters, often a page or two in length. It's a fast but enjoyable read.
on March 3, 2014
Written as a series of diary entries by a young girl - over a period of time. Very depressing in it's depiction of Castro's Cuba and the sociological impact of some of their decrees. A very dysfunctional family, not helped by -in my opinion - a very dysfunctional system of government. That said - I don't know if it would be any better in the USA.
I have so many emotions after reading this beautiful and disturbing portrait of a young girl named Nieve (the Spanish word for "snow') growing up in Cuba. The writing is poetic in a way, formatted around Nieve's diary accounts of life in an unusual living environment. There are so many things going on, I don't know where to begin.
Let's start with Nieve's split parents. Her father, and alcoholic abuser, and artistic puppeteer (yes, apparently you CAN make these things up!) manages to obtain custody of her claiming that her mother's house is unsuitable, in part because Nieve's mother's lover isn't keen on wearing clothes with any regularity. Under her father's "rule," she is maltreated, malnourished, beaten, and generally controlled to within an inch of her life. When she finally returns to her mother's care, she is enrolled in a school for what I think would be the equivalent of a school for remedial students but she also studies in an art school.
While the novel does not go into great detail about the repressive life of Cubans in the early Castro decades (although I'm not exactly sure of the entire time span), it does bring up certain cultural references that are Nieve specific. I found this to be of the utmost interest since most novelists try to give some historic background for the world in which their characters live. In this case, I found this lack of history other than the Nieve-specific instances of repressed life (like conversations had whilst standing in the sea for privacy, for example), completely plausible since children often only see the world through eyes that span their own personal environment. In fact, I think the author did this purposely. In many ways, Nieve seems desensitized and generally accepting of her impoverished and communistic lifestyle, expecting the worst, but only in the most bland (to Nieve) and sorrowful (to the reader) ways.
There was some beauty in Nieve's accounts of childhood and her unintentionally controlled expulsion of private emotion. But I found it disturbing that as she grew older, she grew with a flatness of emotion and spirit that was inevitably shaped through her environment. There's a poetic emptiness to her, even after experiencing a sexual encounter. The biggest emotion I had was an overwhelming lack of hope for Nieve, who accepted life without seeking the romanticized aid of religious or cultural heroes. Or even herself. She lived life with such indifference, I felt angry - for her - many, many times reading her words.
Just as you get to the end of Nieve's lackluster life story, she meets Osvaldo, who introduces her to a completely alternate reality. For the reader, there is a moment of realization in the hypocrisy of communism where you see the disturbing reality of how the privileged live in a society of "equals." Nieve is at a fork in the road with an opportunity to go in a completely different direction but how will she approach this drastic change?
I'm not sure this book is for everyone but if read carefully and thoughtfully, the reader has an opportunity to walk away with a sense of human suffering that is not overly romanticized or dramatized.