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Mirta Yáñez: Sangra por la herida (Bleeding Wound)

This novel is set primarily in Havana and primarily in the Alamar district of Havana. The book is narrated by twelve different narrators (Daontoan, Estela, Gertrude, Hermi, La India, Lola, María Esther, Martín, Micaela, Willie, Woman who talks to Herself in the Park and Yuya) all of whom give their different perspectives on life in Havana. Of course, though they speak, we also hear from many, many others through these twelve. The novel is primarily set in the 1990s but the older ones hark back to and tell stories of life before the Revolution and in the 1960s. There is no real plot to the book, at least no plot running through the book (with one exception, described below), though there are many stories told by the characters and the others.

If there is a unifying theme to the book, apart, obviously, from the fact that they nearly all live in Havana, it is that all of them are more or less unhappy with their lot, whether it is because of the economic or social conditions or because life has passed them by or just because things are not going well for them. Take the case of Dr. Carvajal. Though she does not have her own narration – indeed, we never hear her speak but only see her through the eyes of Lola – she shows how hard life can be. She had, for many years, taught Spanish grammar at the university. She is now retired but things are so difficult that she has to resort to selling individual cigarettes on the street corner. When she eventually dies, no-one realises for three days and she is only discovered when the neighbours smell the rotting corpse.

Martín is a different case. He had been a successful novelist but has not written anything worthwhile for ten years. He still lives with his mother. He can write titles. One of his folders collected titles and only that, in a quantity that surpassed the number of stories that could be written throughout the lifetime of all the writers who hung out at literary workshops. He could have made a living at selling titles; that at least was something he was good at. He picks up little phrases here and there and tries to start a new manuscript but it does not seem to come. He tries to concoct a recipe for sofrito as it is fashionable to include recipes in novels. As well as writing titles, he lusts after young women. He makes a move on Daontaon, an apparently attractive young woman as Martín is not the only one lusting after her. Daontoan (more than one character assumes her name is Asian) is very shrewd and will only sleep with men who can be useful to her. Martín is not successful.

There are tragedies. Maria Antonieta is never called Maria Antonieta but various names, including La India, the name by which she is known in this book. She meets a man, a foreigner, called, Patrick Rivière, known by the nickname The Frenchman. They soon become an item and he moves in with La India and her mother. Eventually, they marry. Then, one day, she disappears, leaving a semi-illiterate note, saying she is heading North by a boat with a lover. No-one, particularly her mother, believed it. When dismembered body parts, wrapped up in parcels, turn up in various parts of the district, it is suspected that the body is La India’s. Suspicion falls on The Frenchman, whom no-one had ever trusted. Gradually most of the body parts are found but not the head.

Eleven of the narrators have stories to tell. The twelfth is the mysterious Woman who talks to Herself in the Park. Her sections are just a paragraph and are her imaginings about the apocalypse arriving in Havana and always end And Havana is dying… One of the characters is not in Havana. Estela lives in London, where she works for a travel agency that sells holidays to Cuba and the Caribbean. She looks at Cuba from afar and she does not have a positive view. When an old friend visits, she is very condescending towards her and cannot wait to get rid of her. Each of the characters has their own distinct personality, from the cynical Martín to the ambitious and pragmatic Daontaon, who is not afraid to use colourful language, from the rebellious Hermi to poor Lola, who is clearly suffering from dementia and cannot remember anything. Some of them do have contact with one another. For example Daontaon is approached by Martín, lives next door to (and dreams about) Micaela and even meets the Frenchman towards the end. However, on the whole they seem to live separate lives but with one exception. She is called the Dead Girl in the English translation but La Difunta in the Spanish original, which I would translate as The Deceased Woman. Quite a few of the characters have had contact with her during her life. Many of them feel some pity for her and some feel guilty about what happened to her, which we only learn towards the end of the book. She never has a name but is clearly not a happy person.

Yáñez is not afraid to criticise Cuba. There are power cuts throughout the book, apparently a regular feature of life in Havana. More particularly, anyone who speaks out or is not in tune with the current political thinking is in trouble. For example, during the 1960s, there was, in the university, a strong criticism of people reading Humanities and we see a meeting where the unfortunate Dead Girl, who was reading Humanities, is in the midst of a bunch of scientists and clearly very unhappy with her lot. Hermi, in particular, and her friend Tristan (the two, though not related, are very similar in appearance and very close) both do not toe the line. Hermi works for a TV station and she is gradually demoted and then fired. In short, rebellion is certainly not only discouraged but actively punished, often with the rebel being sent to an agricultural work camp.

This is a first-class picture of Havana both past and present, with Yáñez showing a wide variety of characters of different age groups and different perceptions of what life is and what life in Cuba has to offer. Clearly, most of the characters are not happy, with a sense of nostalgia for the past, a cynical outlook on life, an eagerness to escape Cuba or, in the case of the Woman who talks to Herself in the Park, an apocalyptic vision. This book was published in English by Cubanabooks, a small independent press devoted to bringing first-class literature from Cuban women to a United States audience as well as to a global English and Spanish-speaking public. Judging by this book, this going to be a most interesting and worthwhile effort, with several books worth reading already published.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Ediciones Unión y Letras Cubanas
First English translation by Cubanbooks in 2014
Translated by Sara E Cooper