Synopses & Reviews
Havana, 1957. On the same day that the Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is assassinated in a barber’ s chair in New York, a hippopotamus escapes from the Havana zoo and is shot and killed by its pursuers. Assigned to cover the zoo story, Joaquí n Porrata, a young Cuban journalist, instead finds himself embroiled in the mysterious connections between the hippo’ s death and the mobster’ s when a secretive zookeeper whispers to him that he “ knows too much.” In exchange for a promise to introduce the keeper to his idol, the film star George Raft, now the host of the Capri Casino, Joaquí n gets information that ensnares him in an ever-thickening plot of murder, mobsters, and, finally, love. The love story is, of course, another mystery. Told by Yolanda, a beautiful ex-circus performer now working for the famed cabaret San Souci, it interleaves through Joaquí n’ s underworld investigations, eventually revealing a family secret deeper even than Havana’ s brilliantly evoked enigmas. In Dancing to Almendra, Mayra Montero has created an ardent and thrilling tale of innocence lost, of Havana’ s secret world that is “ the basis for the clamor of the city, ” and of the end of a violent era of fantastic characters and extravagant crimes. Based on the true history of a bewitching city and its denizens, Almendra is the latest “ triumph” (Library Journal) from one of Latin America’ s most impassioned and intoxicating voices.
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Havana, 1957. On the same day that the Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is assassinated in a barber's chair in New York, a hippopotamus escapes from the zoo and is shot and killed by its pursuers. Assigned to cover the zoo story, Joaquin Porrata, a young Cuban journalist, finds himself embroiled in the mysterious connections between the hippo's death and the mafioso's in this intoxicating story of murder, mobsters, and, finally, love.
About the Author
Mayra Montero is the author of a collection of short stories and of eight novels, including The Messenger, The Last Night I Spent with You, and Captain of the Sleepers. She was born in Cuba and lives in Puerto Rico, where she writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper.
Reading Group Guide
1. What kind of a person is Joaquin? Describe his voice. Does he seem idealistic to you, or does he strike you as cynical? Or both?
2. As the story unfolds and we see Joaquins character develop, how does he respond to situations as they become more serious? Does he seem childish? Might one get that impression from Yolandas narration? Does her estimation of him seem accurate, or do you think she might have a bias?
3. Toward the beginning of the novel, there is a flashback of Joaquin and Julian as children spying on gangsters, and Joaquin believes that they are somehow invisible to detection. Julian tells him that it is really the gangsters who are invisible. Then later, when Joaquin is at Juan Bulgados house, Joaquin feels a little nauseous, and then says: "...it occurred to me that Id become invisible, everything was so unreal, it was a passing moment and, to a point, a pleasant one, Id never felt anything like it before, and Id never feel it again." What does he mean by this? What causes him to feel this way? Do you see any connection between this scene and the earlier one with the gangsters? Is there something about this feeling that makes Joaquin feel connected with the gangsters?
4. What is the "Almendra"? What does it symbolize to Joaquin? Does it have a larger significance? How might the dance symbolize Cuba? Why do you think the book has this title?
5. On page 86, Joaquin is laying in his hotel room at the airport. As he tries to fall asleep, the image of Yolanda comes to his mind and immediately blends together with Aurora, Julians mother. Why do these images meld together? What is it about Yolanda that fascinates Joaquin so much? And what about Yolanda reminds him of Aurora? Where does Joaquins attachmentto Aurora come from? What does it say about his character if he still holds on to it from when he was a boy?
6. When Yolanda is narrating, she tells the story of how she fell for Rodrico (pages 83-84). What are the reasons she gives for falling in love with him? Do they seem plausible to you, or is Yolanda somehow fooling herself? Is there something else about Rodrico that makes him desirable in spite of his physical appearance and coarse manners? Or is it rather something about Yolanda which makes her susceptible to him? Does his unavailability make him more interesting to her? Why do you think someone like Yolanda, who goes for men like Rodrico and Trafficante, would be interested in Joaquin?
7. How does the shifting narration between Joaquins point of view and Yolandas shape the way the story is told? What would the story have been like if it were only told from one point of view? Which voice do you think is more truthful? Which narrator do you think is more honest with him/herself? What is different about the way Yolanda advances the story from the way Joaquin does?
8. What do you think drives Joaquin to keep pursuing the newspaper story? Does his fascination with mobsters play into his attraction to Yolanda? Is he right to cut his losses and quit at the end? Should he have gone further? What would you have done if you were in his place? Why?
9. What kind of a relationship does Joaquin have with his family? Why does his mother seem to annoy him to no end? How does Joaquin feel about his sister and her being a lesbian? Is he tolerant of her? Or is he merely indifferent? Does Joaquin love his family? Is he capable of love?
10. Why do you think that Joaquins brother Santiago fell in with the communists? How are Joaquin and Santiago different? How are they similar? In the shaking-up of life that was happening in Cuba at the time, why do you think that Santiago would choose the path of change, and Joaquin would prefer to learn about the forces which try to prevent change? Why do you think that Santiago was a participant in events, but Joaquin preferred to be an observer?
11. How did Santiagos death affect Joaquin? How did it alter the manner in which he viewed his mission as a journalist? Did Santiagos death reveal Joaquins inner strength, or did it display a latent frailty? Do you think Santiagos death led Joaquin to feel differently about events happening in Cuba at the time? Would you have become more politically involved if you were in Joaquins place? Which side would you have aligned yourself with? Why?
12. What do you think about Monteros depiction of Joaquin? How does she portray his masculine characteristics? Is Joaquin a mans man, or is he more tender?
13. How does having only one arm alter Yolandas perception? How does it affect her love life? If you were to have a similar accident which left you disfigured, would you take it like Yolanda did?
14. Do you think that the ending of the book was sad, or was it uplifting because Joaquins life was saved? Is there something tragic about Joaquins life? How might his life have been different had there been no revolution in Cuba and things had remained pretty much as they were? Do you think that things would have turned out better for him, or worse?
15. Does the story in Dancing to "Almendra" (which is based on actual historical events) change the way you view Cuba? Did you learn anything that you didnt know about the revolution in Cuba? Does the kind of historical background provided in Dancing to "Almendra" lead you to reconsider Americas political and cultural relationship with Cuba? How?