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Book Review – In Cuba I was a German Shepherd by Ana Menendez – 2 1/2 stars


Book cover

The collection of interwoven short stories of In Cuba I was a German Shepherd by Ana Menendez is a quick and interesting read. Ana writes about migrant experiences of Middle Class and the Intelligentsia of Cuba, and the pain, longing and dislocation that comes from leaving behind home, culture, language and country. My extended family includes many migrants and I’ve often pondered the massive sacrifices they made on the chance of a better life in Australia. Without exception after they moved to Australia their qualifications were never recognized and they were forced to make do with less skilled jobs.

The title short story was published already as a stand-alone short story. It and the final story Her Mother’s House are the best stories in the volume and some of the stories in between are definitely weaker. I thought that Ana is overwhelmingly negative in her stories and it would have made for more varied reading if she had included some positive or even just less bleak stories in the volume. The writing style is quite good and the stories are quite interesting but it’s not a great book.

The title short story contains a painful joke that resonated with me and brought tears to my eyes as I thought of my grandfather. A small dog alights from a boat in USA from Cuba and marvels at the tall buildings then sees an elegant white poodle and says:

I would like to marry you, my love, and have gorgeous puppies with you and live in a castle.

She responds:

Do you have any idea who you’re talking to? I am a refined breed of considerable class and you are nothing but a short, insignificant mutt.

He’s a proud dog and responds:

Here in America, I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German Shepherd.

I think that Ana’s writing would appeal to migrants in general and not just Cubans. My grandfather was forced to leave Poland during WWII and was never returned due to Nazi and then Soviet occupation, and then finally settled in Australia after over 15 years of living in exile in England. He thought deeply about issues and liked to expound on the latest events of political significance on the world stage. I asked him many questions about his childhood in Poland and he gave me a bare sketch but I never heard him lament being forced to leave his home, language and culture. Reading this book about the dislocation suffered by diaspora I wonder if he suffered in silence or if he made it his biggest priority to adapt to his new homes?

Poor mental health effects many of the characters in the short stories and some of the cases are absurd, for example Aunt Julia who likes to bite people, to the extent that her husband needed 17 stitches in his cheek. Ana uses a type of magical realism but without the joy that attends it in the writing of other Latin writers. In fact, this is on the whole a joyless book. Jealousy is an unsettling and common theme through the short stories with real and imagined indiscretions torturing spouses. The oddities of the middle class exiles can be somewhat understood as they pine for the end of Castro’s unbearably long rule but what is more disturbing is the lack of balance in the children of the exiles. For example, Anselmo’s jealousy and attendant rage and violence towards his wife is particularly discomforting.

As someone who has difficulty sleeping, I liked this passage:

How did she manage to sleep so well? The first year of their marriage, Anselmo had worried that this easy slumber of hers pointed to some lack in her character. Only children and the simple enjoyed such untroubled sleep. If you were a thinking person, how could you shut your eyes and fall immediately as if under a spell… how could you help but think of all the things that needed fixing?

My grandmother continuously pined for her homeland and our conversations were peppered with unfavorable comparisons between Australia and her beloved England. Similarly many of Ana’s characters pine for their beloved Cuba. Mabella’s grand reminiscences of her childhood home are starkly different to the actual, very modest home that her daughter Lisette discovers when she visits Cuba. It seems that Mabella needed to create an illusion of grandeur so that she could withstand the deprivations of life in exile.

I brought 3 paperbacks with me on this 16 day world trip in anticipation that I would have abundant opportunities to read especially during take-off and landing on my myriad flights. I was right! I’m now just over halfway through the trip and I’ve already finished Doctor Zhivago and now In Cuba I was a German Shepherd. Having been caught out in the past I always carry a spare book for in case I get more reading done than expected. As you can imagine though three books take up crucial volume and weight in my carry-on only luggage. Perhaps I should embrace the digital age and read e-books but the problem I have with them is that I have to pay for them and that goes against my Strategic Consumption Manifesto.  I also find the Kindle difficult to browse compared to my carefully ordered bookcases and I prefer to borrow or at worst buy books 2nd hand and I don’t know how to do that on the Kindle. Also I am not allowed to use the Kindle during take-off and landing and I don’t like to waste opportunities to read so I can’t see a way around carrying lots of books with me.

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