When Z. was a child in Havana she learned how to disassemble and reassemble the engines of classic American cars. Z., the narrator of Ena Lucía Portela’s One Hundred Bottles, describes this skill as the most useful thing she knows, and her aptitude at the art of reconstruction is made beautifully clear in this compact but panoptic portrait of modern Cuba in crisis. One Hundred Bottles is a novel about novels and novelists, and about a writer’s duty to deconstruct and rearrange prevailing systems. More specifically, it is a novel about two writers living through The Special Period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the USSR, and the cessation of Soviet petroleum imports, led to a devastating economic collapse.
Z., who narrates in a conversational and colloquial monologue, is an overweight twentysomething at work on an unnamed book. She lives in a single room in a decrepit mansion that has become overrun with migrants from the countryside and their unruly pets. Named after Tchaikovsky’s code letter for homosexuals, Z. is the unlikely product of a Parisian mother who died in childbirth and an openly, and flamboyantly, gay Cuban father who long ago left for San Francisco. Enmeshed in an abusive relationship with Moisés—a man so terrible he seems to be both misogyny and misanthropy incarnate—she is at once always and never alone. Her sharp but caustic best friend Linda tells Z. that her place in life is the same as her place in the alphabet.
Linda, it just so happens, is also at work on a book, about a double homicide, called 100 Bottles on the Wall. Already an established author of feminist detective fiction, Linda lives in a spacious penthouse apartment—inherited from her parents when they emigrated to Israel—survives on royalty checks from her agent in Spain and makes frequent sojourns abroad. She holds two passports—Austrian and Cuban—speaks six languages and makes sweeping, melodramatic claims about Emily Brontë (brilliant but misunderstood) and Virginia Woolf (an Anglo Saxon lizard who “used feminism as a cover to rake Katherine Mansfield over the coals”).
The novel’s dramatic arc takes nascent form when Linda is invited to attend a conference of Hispanic Caribbean Women Writers at Hunter College in New York. Traveling to the U.S. on her Austrian passport, she speaks English with a German accent to avoid scrutiny at customs. As Z. is quick to note, Linda, who is the descendent of European Holocaust survivors, “doesn’t have a drop of Hispanic in her” but because she writes in Spanish is nevertheless included in the event and supported heartily, if blindly, by her fellow writers. Scheduled to return to Havana after a week, Linda instead stays in New York for six months, living in Washington Heights with a Puerto Rican poet and coming out as a lesbian.
Upon returning to Cuba, Linda becomes an integral part of Havana’s lesbian community and starts a tumultuous affair with a very jealous younger woman, Alix Oyster. When the couple comes to blows—or whatever else you might call a sloppy knife/gun fight—Linda kicks Alix to the curb. The girl first finds herself on the streets and then on a sympathetic Z.’s bedroom floor; which is where she stays until the night of a double homicide that may, or may not be, the same double homicide Linda is writing about in 100 Bottles on the Wall.
Portela is an excellent practitioner of double entendres and semiotic slights of hand, which lends to a storyline that is often more atmospheric and anecdotal than streamlined. Much of One Hundred Bottles takes a wide angle on the culture of 1990s Havana, with Z. evoking a shaky handheld video camera. Z. seems to derive great pleasure from her bizarre, and often obscene encounters and treats these incidents with a voyeur’s enthusiasm. In a particularly poignant episode, Z. seduces a former classmate, J.J., who in the midst of some very public sex on the Malecón, calls out “linda”, which Z. at first hears as linda (pretty) but is actually Linda. If this seems awfully bleak, well, Z. finds it amusing and invites J.J. back to her room for a second, and third, round. This ability to survive any number of hardships—cramped living quarters, Moisés’ physical and verbal abuse, the severe dearth of food for years on end—seems to derive from Z.’s singular ability to disassemble reality and reconstruct it, so that what should logically be terrible becomes roughly bizarre and bemusing.
Portela is very much a writer’s writer, and she peppers One Hundred Bottles with literary references, Latin terminology, and quotes from King Lear (“thou whoreson Zed! Thou unnecessary letter!”). At times these stylistics can become cloyingly clever, as is the case with the character Poliéster, the son of a Cuban woman and a Russian engineer, who owes his name to the synthetic fabric. But at its best this fascination with semiotics reveals itself in an intelligent exploration of authorship and identity. The question of who is writing whom is never resolved, leaving the reader without evidence that Linda and her crime novel aren’t fabrications from Z.’s book. Or, for that matter, that it isn’t actually Linda who has created the character of Z.
It is worth noting that the one weak point in an otherwise seamlessly worded English rendition is the book’s title, which in its original Spanish is Cien botellas en una pared (One Hundred Bottles on a Wall) the exact title of Linda’s book. This is also, and equally significantly, the title of that highly repetitive song, sung to pass the time on long car trips. One Hundred Bottles is very much about this stretch—the bleak decade when Cuba struggled to rearrange itself after Soviet collapse—and about the role of narrative in quelling the subsequent emptiness and uncertainty. But Portela offers her readers something far more nuanced than an homage to storytelling. At its best, One Hundred Bottles makes for a brilliant lesson in the art of disassembling relics. At work in both the novel and the song are a war of attrition and a process of extraction, the taking down and passing around of one single part of a larger whole. One Hundred Bottles succeeds as a story of crisis and survival because it turns the focus from the pattern on the wall to dissenting pieces compelled to forgo such uniformity.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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