The late 50s in Cuba were so rich with glamour and conflict it’s a wonder more stories haven’t been set there. Such a time, such a place, and all these elements in a long, slow collision: the sordid glory of casino culture, the last crest of old-school Hollywood splendor, the vicious florescence of the Italian and Jewish mafias, the worldly style of the Cubans themselves and the gathering rumble of the Revolution, all playing out in a gorgeous city. And here is Mayra Montero, a Cuban woman now living in Puerto Rico, and “Dancing to ‘Almendra,’ ” her ninth novel, lovingly translated by Edith Grossman: a flawless little book with a deceptively light touch, that covers exactly those years.
Montero’s novel is narrated by a man named Joaquín Porrata, a 22-year-old reporter living in Havana during the last days of Batista, who shows up for work one morning and finds he’s been assigned the story of a hippopotamus that has escaped from the zoo and been shot to death. As it happens, that same night the mafia capo Umberto Anastasia was murdered in a hotel barber’s shop in New York City, and from a rather strange little zookeeper named Juan Bulgado (or Johnny Angel, or Johnny Lamb: in Havana even a zookeeper can dream), Porrata discovers that the two killings are related.