In a fit of nostalgia, after thirteen years living as a “free man,” Enrique Martin abandons common sense, his third wife and his life in Spain to return to Cuba. Once on the island, he tries to get closer to his son, David, who is struggling to make do on his teacher’s salary and is harassed by policemen who brand him a “citizen with characteristics.”
Amidst televised speeches, ration cards, buildings on the verge of collapse, sun, sand, sea foam, censorship, intolerance and other tropical substances, a good cop, a bad cop, several Marias, a Jazz quartet, an idealistic teacher, child molesters, an alleged Dominican, an Australian with strong thighs, drug lords, suicides, pornographers, revolutionaries and a varied list of criminals gather in these pages. All they have in common is one question: where are the emergency exits in Havana?
Other, feverish, brief, incongruous,
time occurs to him in its measure.
He remembers a brush, the sheet music
and the unquiet impression of sunrise,
the vice of age and the ironies
of frontiers and incarcerations,
of the fallacies and of the exiles
of each eternity and each passing day.
He loved his kind among silent letters.
He learned to breathe in a foreign soil
and the air, clean and grave, was the dilemma.
His phobias conspire with his doubts.
His pen has the shape of a scythe.
He burned his ships in that poem.
In his introduction to Mujica’s renowned book, author Reinaldo Arenas notes that “There are (at least) two kinds of good literature. One that emerges out of a rigorous disciplined literary work and an organized and lucid talent; this kind normally produces limpid, beautiful, serene and even sumptuously desolate pages. The other kind, the one that really cuts through the bone and transcends, encompassing the aforementioned qualities, also infects us — as a virus for which there’s no antidote — with the glow of the curse, the torrential and unstoppable fury of the condemned.”
North of Hell, quite obviously, is a book of the second kind, a work with “the imminent authenticity of its characters, its language, its world, its shouts.”