Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Another Great WSJ Editorial...

He Wrote His Way to Freedom

A novelist's flight from Cuba.

BY TOM NOLAN
Tuesday, December 27, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

Do you remember exactly where you were on Aug. 6, 2002?

José Latour, the 65-year-old Cuban-born author of several crime-fiction novels, including the just-released "Comrades in Miami" (Grove), will never forget where he was: On a plane headed to the start of a new life. "We left Havana on August 5th, close to midnight," the writer recalled recently in Los Angeles, where he was on tour to promote his new book, "and we landed in Madrid at noon on August 6th."

With Mr. Latour on that 2002 flight were his wife, their 25-year-old son, and their 24-year-old daughter. "That was, you know, a real accomplishment: to get a whole family out of Cuba, legally." he said. "Very few people have been able to leave Cuba as I did."

You might say Mr. Latour wrote his way to freedom. His vehicle was crime fiction, a genre he fell in love with as a youngster in pre-revolutionary 1950s Havana, reading PocketBook paperbacks left behind by American tourists patronizing the barbershop and beauty parlor run by his aunt in the Hotel Nacional. "That's how I discovered Erle Stanley Gardner . . . Shell Scott. . . the Ellery Queen pair of authors," Mr. Latour said. "And the absolute master of crime-noir . . . Raymond Chandler."

It was not until 1977, though, that Mr. Latour began to write socially conscious thrillers of his own. "I wanted to do something more significant than just shuffling papers at the Ministry of Finance," he said. "So I started writing in my spare time. . . . I made my first novel--and it was successful. Well," he added modestly, "let me say, in Cuba any crime-fiction book is successful, regardless of quality."

His first four books, written in Spanish, were set in the years before Fidel Castro came to power (an event that occurred when Mr. Latour was 18). "I had complete creative liberty" with those initial novels, the author said, "because I was mentioning what happened 'before.'" But for his fifth book, in 1994, he crafted a story inspired by more recent events: the arrest in 1989 of several army and Ministry of the Interior officers (four of whom were subsequently executed) for helping Colombian drug lords facilitate safe passage of cocaine through Cuba en route to Florida. "This was the book that made me an outcast in my country," Mr. Latour says, "because the Ministry of the Interior considered that I was writing contra-revolutionary literature."

Overnight, he went from best-selling author to literary pariah. "I realized I wouldn't get published anymore in Cuba, and I decided to start writing in English." By then, Mr. Latour had become completely disenchanted with Cuba's political system. "I believed in the revolution" at first, he recalled. "I thought it was the best thing that ever happened to my country. Ah well, it turned out it's the worst thing that happened to my country."

By 1994, too, Mr. Latour had made the acquaintance of writing colleagues in other countries, as a member of the International Association of Crime Writers, a group he joined in 1988. The American chapter paid for trips Mr. Latour took to the U.S. in 1992 and in 1998, the year he was elected the IACW's vice president for Latin America. But in Cuba, authorities continued to make things difficult.

"Such an oppressive life," Mr. Latour recalled. "Can you imagine a writer that for three or four years keeps asking the Ministry of Culture to please sell him a computer? 'I am not asking you to give away a computer. I will pay you $500, $600 for an old computer that's not worth more than 250. I am willing to pay the price.' And they won't sell you a computer. . . . And then everything you say is a crime, and you are constantly under surveillance; and you go to an embassy because they are giving a cocktail [party]-- and there's an olive-green jeep following you all the way. I mean you feel like a bug under a microscope."

He noted: "You write [a novel] here in the United States about corrupt people in the CIA, the FBI, the police, the government . . . nothing happens; it's just fiction, and nobody questions the writer's right. . . . But you do that in Cuba--you're a traitor; you are giving weapons to the enemy."

His new friends in the wider crime-novel world--including the American writers Lawrence Block and the late Ross Thomas--were very supportive, Mr. Latour said. "But I never asked for any help, because I didn't want to incur any loans and debts and things I couldn't repay. . . . So I had to first have the money, and then invest it in immigrating. It was a sort of a difficult problem."

He solved it with the elegance of a skillful mystery-plotter. Working painstakingly in a second language, Mr. Latour began writing fiction in English. He'd just finished a book-length manuscript when a visiting Brooklyn musician announced he was starting a publishing house and wondered if Mr. Latour had any English work for him to bring out in trade paperback? Mr. Latour did. His novel "Outcast" was published by Akashic Books in 1999. It was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America and acquired for hardcover publication by Morrow.

Now, with some funds due him, Mr. Latour applied to emigrate with his family to Canada: a three-year process, during which he was still at the mercy of Cuban authorities. In the meantime, Mr. Latour used one of his trips to the States to make financial arrangements for his future.

"According to U.S. Treasury regulations, Cubans living in Cuba couldn't have bank accounts in the States. So I flew from Washington to Toronto, and opened an account at the Royal Bank of Canada. And all my revenue from selling rights to my books, or whatever--they were sent to this account." But he was scrupulous about paying Cuban tax on all his income: "I was very careful not to give them the opportunity to charge me with any sort of common crime."

Back in Cuba, Mr. Latour was waiting out the first months of his Canadian emigration process ("I was fearing that I might be sent to jail, or something") when an unexpected opportunity presented itself: A Spanish translation of "Outcast," the book he'd written in English, was about to be printed in Spain; its publisher asked Mr. Latour to come to that country for a promotional tour.

"I said, 'OK, I'll do it--if you also invite my wife, my son and my daughter.' Let me explain. . . . Cubans living in Cuba need written invitations to file an application with the immigration authorities. I said, 'I will cover the expenses of my family; you will cover my out-of-pocket expenses.' . . . And they said, 'OK, perfect, no problem.' They figured [it] out."

The Spanish publisher got the Cubans to grant permission for the family's trip. At the airport, on Aug. 5, 2002, Mr. Latour produced a Royal Bank of Canada credit card. "That was it: around $3,000. That's how I paid for the plane tickets. So I didn't violate any laws." All the Latours took out of Cuba were the clothes they wore.

"When the plane was like two hours away from Cuba," Mr. Latour said, "I started feeling confident that we would be getting to Spain. I said, 'If there's any mechanical problem, it could land in Puerto Rico [instead], or in the Dominican Republic.' When we finally landed in Madrid: 'Aaaaaah!'"

The Latours remained in Spain for the duration of their Canadian immigration process--"two years and 24 days"--then moved to Toronto, where they've lived ever since.

Now, instead of worrying about being detained by Cuban customs men or hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night, Mr. Latour worries about books turning up on time for store signings and whether a publisher will be willing to spend enough to properly advertise and promote his next novel.

Is he happy he traded the former worries for the latter?

"Absolutely!" he said with vigor. "Absolutely, my friend. Oh! You don't know. You don't know."

Mr. Nolan is the editor of "The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries by Margaret Millar" (Crippen & Landru Publishers).

1 comment:

alex said...

José Latour was my neighbor in Cuba. Lived in my building, one floor down. He also worked under my dad at the Ministry of Finances - we all commuted together in my dad's car everyday. He's a nice guy. I read an interview in El Pais when he went to Spain with his whole family, and I was glad he was able to leave.