Rating: 1 star
Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge
How a book that’s only 344 pages long can feel like it’s going on forever is one of life’s mysteries, isn’t it? Or is that just me? I thought this book would never end. Since I was only reading it for a reading challenge which is team based, I didn’t feel as though I could abandon it, much as I wanted to throw it in the bin.
It took a fair few pages to get past my irritation with Latour’s style. At the start, there are two separate stories going on, one in Cuba and the other in Miami. The Cuba section is in italics and follows an intelligence officer and her husband as they carry out a financial sting on Castro’s regime, disillusioned by the Communist ideal they’ve been sold and plotting to get out before Castro dies and the regime collapses. The Miami section follows a Cuban émigré who works for a trading company. His boss has recently died and the widow has started to take an interest in the company. Gradually, the two stories converge, amidst a plot that focuses on politics and espionage. Latour then loses the italics.
I am suspicious of the use of italics to indicate something different is taking place. It’s as though the author thinks the reader isn’t intelligent enough to work out that they’re momentarily in a different location or a different time period with different characters.
Eventually, I realised that Latour isn’t a Le Carré or a James Ellroy when it comes to writing about espionage against a political backdrop, so I got on with reading it. The book is what it is. All of the characters felt a little two-dimensional. The men are very male. The two key women are also very male in a lot of ways. I think Latour was aiming for straightforward and gutsy. Women can be straightforward and gutsy without having to pretend we have a pair of balls knocking together in our knickers.
The passages about Steil’s return to his childhood home and to the suburb of Havana where he was a school teacher, before he escaped Cuba for the freedom of the USA, grabbed my imagination a bit. Grabbed is too strong, really. Lightly gripped my wrist in an insistent but largely ineffectual way is closer to it. Despite Latour’s clear bias against the Communist regime in Cuba, it was interesting to read about what life in Cuba was like. Although, Latour has Steil play Lord Bountiful with his family, who all weep with gratitude. That was slightly annoying.
Politically, I found Latour’s sneering tiresome. Hugo Chavez becomes Rufo Chaviano, and his coup survival in 2002 is turned into a puppet show to illustrate how farcical Cuba’s regime is by extension. Everyone is waiting for The Chief (Castro) to die or be replaced due to ill-health. Only a very few in the Cuban government have any nowse. It made me long for the satire of Iannucci in The Thick of It. It wasn’t angry or clever enough.
A book about cold war espionage should be exciting. I wanted my brain to be engaged, trying to work out what was going on. I wanted my heart to be in my mouth as the characters dealt with jeopardy. Unfortunately, Latour spells everything out with a wearyingly patronising air. Even he seems to find giving the explanations tedious. The dialogue is often wooden. There’s a lot of sex in the book, too. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude. I’ve known since I read a James Herbert novel (The Jonah), aged 12 (precocious), in the car on the way to visit my sister at university, that sex scenes in novels work on me. In the 30+ years since that literary revelation, I’ve learnt that Sex scenes in novels work better on me than porn. That’s possibly too much information. Sex scenes in novels written by José Latour, however, have no effect because he writes them as though he is writing a manual.
And that’s basically what this book felt like. A manual on how to be an unimaginative spy and embezzle $2.7 million from your government. No humour, no thrills, no point.