Havana book fair feeds Cuba's hunger for literature
- 21 February 2013
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
The queue outside the pavilion is long and chaotic, a burly man keeping control with a whistle as the crowd pushes towards him.
They are fans of one of Cuba's best-known contemporary writers, Leonardo Padura, and they are at the Havana International Book Fair to get their hands on his latest book.
"This is the only place you can get it," Javier laments, "and just look at the queue!"
One thousand copies sold out in an instant.
Away from the fair, Mr Padura's work is almost impossible to find in Havana's state-run bookstores where most shelves are stacked with thick tomes on socialism, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
The scarcity of popular writers' work is a common complaint in Cuba which stopped importing books after the revolution and established its own publishing houses.
The goal, accompanied by a literacy campaign, was to make books accessible to all by subsidising production. It also gave total state control over what is printed here.
With Soviet funds, Cuba's presses turned out more than 50 million books a year in the boom times but the demise of the USSR sent production plummeting.
"We'd like to print more literature, but our finances don't permit that," explains Zuleica Romay, president of Cuba's official Book Institute.
She argues the reason there are so many political books on shop shelves is that novels and poetry sell out fastest.
"If you really want people to have access to books, they have to be cheap and of course this limits us producing the quantity we'd like to," Ms Romay adds.
Cuba published some 25 million books last year, though two-thirds of these were text books.
Modern foreign titles are rare as buying rights is expensive.
"At first, Cuba produced the classics in enormous quantities so you could have 100,000 copies of a Balzac novel, say. That created a mass of readers," explains Pedro Juan Gutierrez, an acclaimed novelist.
"But we have known very little contemporary literature since 1960; we're very disconnected. People here are very anxious to get good books."
So the Havana fair always attracts vast crowds. As well as low-priced, Cuban-produced books, printed for the occasion, there are glossy foreign novels and non-fiction too.
One Mexican bookseller is doing a brisk trade with piles of Doris Lessing novels, books on Yoga and even Alan Greenspan's autobiography.
"It's a good opportunity for us to sell titles of a certain age to the Cuban market, where they've not been seen yet," Andres Castillo explains.
A student has managed to find George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four; others stream out into the sunshine clutching children's books and chunky dictionaries.
Some books are still banned, though.
There is no sign at the fair of novels by well-known critics in exile, like Zoe Valdes, and whilst Pedro Juan Gutierrez's scatological expose of the darkest possible side of city life, The Dirty Havana Trilogy, has been published to great praise in 22 languages, Cuban editors will not touch it.
He lost his job as a journalist when the book came out in Spain but, more than a decade on, several of his other novels have been released here.
"I think those making the decisions have slightly more freedom now," Mr Gutierrez suggests.
"We writers have carried on writing what we want, and now they're slowly publishing my titles."
In another sign of what writers hope are changing times, the word on the literary grapevine is that the work of Heberto Padilla is due to be published posthumously, for the first time since he was imprisoned as a counter revolutionary in the 1970s.
The poet's name has long been synonymous with Cuban censorship.
And at the book fair, Leonardo Padura was awarded Cuba's 2012 National Literature Prize despite a body of work which highlights social issues still off-limits to the state-run press.
Mr Padura says there was "a lot of incomprehension" initially, things were "very difficult". But he dates an increasing tolerance back to the economic collapse of the 1990s.
"In the 90s, paper, electricity and ink all disappeared and Cuba stopped publishing books. For writers, that break with state institutions created a space that soon filled with freedom," he explains.
"First, we began writing differently. Then we began finding publishers abroad. It created a different kind of literature, where criticism is part of the writer's vision just like anywhere else in the world."
Eventually, Mr Padura's books were printed here in Cuba, though in limited quantities as his Spanish publisher now holds the rights. But he believes that has helped other local writers to push the boundaries.
"No-one in Cuba has a safety net, there's always an element of risk when you have a critical vision," the author admits.
"But three or four years ago all the talk was about homogeneity and unity. Now, it's that other views should exist. I think that understanding is making a different kind of art possible."
And now, recognised for his life's work at just 58, Leonardo Padura is allowing himself to be optimistic about the future.
"After so many difficult years, when so many things were banned and denied us, people here deserve to live better, to have a bit more freedom," he says.