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08/08/2007

When crime fiction is a crime

Amir Valle's journey from success to exile - a Cuban destiny. By Knut Henkel

There is nothing to distinguish the turn of the century building with the number 304 from its neighbours on the Calle Rayo. For long years the pockmarked facade has seen neither plaster nor paintbrush. A typical building in a typical street in Centro Habana, the run-down district in the centre of Havana. The quarter is reputed to be disreputable, and dangerous. And here in the Calle Rayo, on the edge of the touristy Chinatown not far from the famous restaurant "La Guarida," where the Spanish kings dined, is Amir Valle's flat. His computer is still there, now used by his stepson, and the many documents he gathered about the neighbourhood and the life there are piled on shelves in the living room.



Amir Valle (right), with Cuban author Lorenzo Lunar (left) and Spanish author Jose Carlos Somoza. All photos courtesy Amir Valle.

Valle knows the neighbourhood and its inhabitants like the back of his hand, whether they're salespeople, street vendors, dealers, prostitutes, criminals or line-toeing workers. They are the dregs of society, and the major source of inspiration for his detective novels. Amir Valle has his commissioner Alain Bec investigate on this other side of Havana, full of drugs, black markets, squalor, lethargy and crime. However Bec is anything but up to the task, because he comes from cream of Cuban society and is a racist to boot. So he is unfamiliar with the rules of the foreign environment, Valle explains with a broad grin. Commissioner Bec has to learn a lot and fast, because the cases that land on his desk are increasingly explosive. In the first, Bec is faced with organised child prostitution, in the second with intolerance at homosexuality, and in the third with the resurgence of organised drug dealers.

In Cuba all of these topics are politically explosive, and Valle knows this all too well. But like his Cuban colleagues Leonardo Padura Fuentes and Lorenzo Lunar, rather than avoid them he has committed himself heart and soul to the Cuban reality. Born in Guantanamo in eastern Cuba, Valle studied life in Centro Habana at close range. At the end of the 1990s he and his wife eked out a living selling croquettes in the streets around the Calle Rayo. This work as a street vendor allowed him to established contact with the local milieu. He saw how young bullies began to deal first cigars and then drugs. Some of his stepson's friends were among them, Valle admits.



Amir Valle at the grave of Bertold Brecht in Berlin.

The 17-year-old son of his wife Berta is now living alone in the flat in Centro Habana, because Amir Valle has been a persona non grata in Cuba since July 2005. That's when the writer and his wife travelled to the Spanish town of Gijon, as they had done the year before, to participate in the Semana Negra crime fiction festival. But the couple were denied permission to return to Havana, explains Valle in his flat in Berlin with a glum look. The flat was part of a stipend offered him by the German PEN centre. Since August 2006 Valle has been a "writer in exile," and the small signs with the German words taped to all the objects in the apartment show he doesn't expect to go home soon. His name is cursed in Havanna, he says, just as those of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas were cursed in the past.

And Valle, a practising Christian, makes no secret of why. Very early on he had begun to distance himself from the system and sought independence so as to avoid the corruption, dishonesty and the diverse censorship mechanisms. He began looking into the prostitution milieu in Havana at the beginning of the 1990s. The resulting study, "Habana Babilonia," became an underground bestseller in Cuba, and provided the background for the investigations of Commissioner Bec. And after the first Cuban literary awards, prizes followed in Colombia, The Dominican Republic and Spain, as well as publishing contracts in Spain and Germany. Valle became more independent, and soon counted among the best-known authors in Cuba. Most of his books are published in the country, although in small editions.

In 2002 came the first caesura: Culture Minister Abel Prieto warned publishers to be careful in their dealings with Valle at a national meeting. At the time Valle was working for the Puerto Rican publisher Plaza Mayor, supervising their Cuban collection. But as the company belonged to Patricia Menoyo, the daughter of a well-known Cuban opposition figure, Valle was considered suspect, despite the prizes received by his literary work. The trained journalist first heard of the Culture Minister's thunderbolt through a publisher, and - as opposed to many of his colleagues - took the offensive, immediately writing to Abel Prieto asking him for a statement on his comments. He never received an answer. Not one to shy away from a conflict situation, Valle made no secret of his views abroad, at home, and to the political establishment, openly declaring his solidarity with Raul Rivero Castaneda, the poet and journalist who was arrested in 2003 and given a stiff prison sentence, and who now lives in Spain.

In Cuba this was a taboo, and Valle intentionally transgressed it. The place of an intellectual is on the side of the government. In going against this dictate, he placed himself squarely in the opposition, Valle admits. Yet he never dreamed he would be barred from returning home, and he harbours firm intentions of going back to his stepson in the apartment on the Calle Rayo. His own son, the six year old Lior, has long joined his father in Germany. Valle wrote to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian friend of Fidel Castro, as well as to Cuban intellectuals and politicians, threatening an international scandal if his son was not allowed to leave. A few days later Valle's father in Havana received the papers necessary for the boy's departure. The permit is limited to two years, after which Valle too hopes to be allowed to return. Until then he wants to put the time to good use by writing - also about his experience with the Cuban revolution: yet another taboo Valle has no bones about breaking.

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The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 27, 2007.

Knut Henkel is a freelance journalist.

Translation: jab.
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