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Delving into Cuba's literary legacy

The love affair between the people of Cuba and their books is no great secret; indeed, Havana in particular seems to repeatedly capture the imagination of both Cuban and international writers. Authors from Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene to Leonardo Padura have used the colourful, complex city as a backdrop to their novels.

And the people of Cuba love to read too; this is an island of readers. After a post-revolution literacy push, UNICEF reported that literacy rates among Cuban children stood at 100 per cent by the late 2000s, with the adult literacy rate also hitting a resoundingly high 99.8 per cent - figures almost unheard of across the globe, and a proud legacy of Fidel Castro.

Cuba's literary legacy

What to read ahead of your trip

So what better way to prepare for your trip to Cuba than to brush up on some of the most iconic Cuban texts, both from Cuban authors and international writers who were enchanted by this unique country? Here are some of the most iconic authors - international and Cuban, classic and contemporary - who have written from or about this alluring nation.

Hemingway's Cuba

Hemingway - Cuba's literary legacy

An endlessly enigmatic figure, American author Ernest Hemingway travelled the globe, leaving a trail of empty bottles behind him from Venice to Tanzania, but Cuba was the country he made his home. As a 28-year-old in 1928, he took a 48-hour trip to Havana with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer - and this visit, short as it was, clearly left a lasting impression on the budding author.

Hemingway in Cuba - Cuba's literary legacy

He returned to the Cuban capital in 1932 and acquired a room - number 511 - at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana. He wouldn't move out of this room properly for close to eight years, instead spending his time writing his novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls", and drinking in Old Havana. Of his preferred bars during this time, he famously wrote:

"My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita."

On the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio.

In 1940 the author purchased a home with his new wife Martha Gellhorn just outside Havana. He would stay here for 20 years, although Martha would be replaced by his fourth wife Mary Welsh, during which time he penned "The Old Man and the Sea", which would go on to become one of his most famous novels, winning him a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hemingway in Cuba - Cuba's literary legacy

Hemingway - or "Papa", as he is known to Cubans - is a vastly celebrated figure in the country. The anniversary of his first trip to Cuba is marked with festivities, and his hotel room at the Ambos Mundos has been transformed into a museum, preserved in time as it would have looked during his stay. There's also the Museo Ernest Hemingway to explore: housed in Finca Vigia, his home outside Havana. But to really experience Havana like Hemingway, you have to get a little tipsy: take a mojito in La Bodeguita and a daiquiri in El Floridita.

Hemingway's book The Old Man and the Sea - Cuba's literary legacy

Before jetting off to Cuba, consider picking up a copy of "The Old Man and the Sea" - the author's most famous novel, as well as the one most associated with Cuba. A relatively short book, it tells the story of an ageing Cuban fisherman struggling to catch a giant fish.

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana

Graham Greene certainly isn't as well known among Cubans as Hemingway, with many not recognising his name at all. However, the Havana he describes in his darkly comedic novel "Our Man in Havana" is largely still intact.

Graham Greene - Cuba's literary legacy

Greene's book was written and published when Fulgencio Batista's Cuba was still going strong, and it is the classic American cars, pastel-hued buildings, and glamour and vice of the 1950s that many of us think about when reflecting on the Cuban capital.

Graham Greene's book Our Man in Havana - Cuba's literary legacy

Although sanctions have been a little relaxed on foreign imports over the years, Cuba still feels pretty untouched by outside influence. While there have been huge political changes since "Our Man in Havana" was published, aesthetically, if you visit the Cuban capital now you'll find yourself largely in Greene's depiction of Havana.

Despite the fact that Greene largely lived in Batista's Cuban capital, where casinos, brothels, and vice were the order of the day, he was very sympathetic to the Communist revolutionaries. He went as far as to send warm winter clothing to the guerillas hiding in the mountains, and befriended Castro.

Fidel Castro - Cuba's literary legacy

Later, the Cuban government would give permission for the shooting of the movie "Our Man in Havana" in the Cuban capital, but Castro later complained that the film did not accurately portray the hardship of living under Batista's regime. On this, Greene once commented:

"I had not wanted too black a background for a light-hearted comedy, but those who suffered during the years of dictatorship could hardly be expected to appreciate that my real subject was the absurdity of the British agent and not the justice of a revolution."

Meander through the streets of Havana and you'll find many of the places referenced in "Our Man in Havana", from Lamparilla Street, the home of the protagonist's vacuum cleaner shop, to Sloppy Joe's, one of his favourite watering holes.

Leonardo Padura's Four Seasons in Havana: Now on Netflix

Leonardo Padura, Four Seasons in Havana - Cuba's literary legacy

The journalist and novelist Leonardo Padura is one of Cuba's best-known writers, internationally speaking, and his most famous works have recently become even more accessible.

Four of his books - "Havana Blue", "Havana Gold", "Havana Red", and "Havana Black" - have been transformed into a miniseries called "Four Seasons in Havana", now available on Netflix. If you don't have time to read the books before you go, this seductive miniseries about Lieutenant Conde solving crimes, bedding women, and exposing corruption in Havana is an enjoyable way to whet your appetite for a stay in the colourful city.

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara: Cuba's adopted Argentine son

Che Guevara - Cuba's literary legacy

Ernesto "Che" Guevara was an iconic figure in Cuba's Communist Revolution, joining Fidel and Raul Castro in their efforts to overthrow Batista's dictatorship. Guevara led an intensely fascinating life, from his beginnings in Argentina and his travels around South America, where he witnessed poverty that sparked his revolutionary spirit, to his part in the Cuban Revolution and his death in Bolivia. His writings largely cover the events of his own life and politics, with his most famous being "The Motorcycle Diaries".

While this book doesn't detail Che's time in Cuba, it follows his early travels around South America as a 23-year-old as he develops the Marxist principles that would go on to guide him during the Cuban Revolution. As the book ends, the middle class 20-something declares his willingness to fight and die for the poor: hugely significant given what he would go on to do.

Che Guevara museum

Carlos Eire: Operation Peter Pan

Carlos Eire was born in Havana in 1950, but fled to the US without his parents at the age of 11 as part of "Operation Peter Pan", run by a Catholic priest in the US. He went on to receive his PhD from Yale University, where he now works as a Professor of History and Religious Studies.

His non-fiction book "Waiting for Snow in Havana" covers his experiences as part of this operation, providing a unique perspective on post-Revolution Cuba. At the heart of the book are Carlos' memories of his short childhood in Havana, and his desire to fulfil his mother's wishes of becoming a modern American man.

Why not visit Cuba's International Book Fair too?

Book fair - Cuba's literary legacy

If you're particularly interested in Cuban literature, there's no better place to explore this legacy than Cuba's International Book Fair, which is held in February each year. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans flock to the capital for a series of cultural events celebrating their literary passions.

Renowned as Cuba's biggest cultural event, the book fair spends ten days in Havana before touring other cities with its vast programme of concerts, art exhibitions, and lectures, as well as books from 100 publishing houses. The spectacular event will leave you with no doubt of Cubans' passion for literature: it boasts the largest attendance of any cultural event in the country.

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Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

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