Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Review: José Latour. Comrades in Miami

Michael Sedano

José Latour. Comrades in Miami. A Novel. NY: Grove Press, 2005. ISBN 0802118100

There's a nice irony in the title of José Latour's 2005 Cuban espionage thriller, Comrades in Miami. Cubans in deep cover in Miami remain true to the revolution, follow orders, carry out missions unquestioningly (except those who don't), while in Havana, Cuban intelligence bureaucrats occupy themselves protecting their elite privileges, cynically mouthing platitudes as they observe the deterioration of the Chief and the nation, and most people spend at least part of their lives thinking about ways to get out.

Elliot Steil is an everyday mid-career expatriate trading company executive. Steil is the Spanish-speaking lynchpin, third in command to a pair of long time business partners. When Scheindlin dies, his trophy wife takes a sudden interest into the company's illegal deals with Cuba.

Steil has become a millionaire and has settled into normalcy. The solid executive has come far from the morning he floats onto US shores in an innertube in Latour’s first novel, Outcast. Steil has been supporting relatives and friends back in Cuba. When he decides to take a sentimental journey, his path collides with a network of long-time sleeper agents buried in the heart of Miami.

Victoria Valiente earns her way to the top of Cuban intelligence on puro merit. Promoted by the Chief himself and dubbed his genius for her infallible hunches about defectors and traitors, Valiente launches a scheme to get out of Cuba and get her hands on the million dollars her husband has stolen from the Cuban government in his role as a computer nerd.

Victoria's infallibility crumbles when she discovers she is unprepared for US culture and her plan founders on the shores of Bal Harbor. Or Bel Harbor. Despite having local street maps memorized as part of her spykeeping, Victoria gets lost in the cultural geography, forcing her to capacity with evermore difficult obstacles to a bag of money and a passport. Steil, alerted by the FBI, plays the unwilling host to kidnapers, con artists, spies of various nations. He's blackmailed, tied to his bed, played for a fool. Obviously, he's the one who wins. That's not giving away anything.

Latour, according to the dustjacket, lives in Toronto. The expatriate writes with a warmness for Cuban people and a razor for the throats of its leadership. When Steil visits his old school, he meets three gamins and buys each a set of clothes. Steil loves his suegros, the sick ex-wife, the sugarcane workers in his rural hometown:

"That evening, as he watched his wide-eyed aunts, his uncle, and other family members opening boxes and gasping in surprise, shaking their heads in dismay, and deploring that Elito had spent so much money, Elliot reflected that the innocence, candor, generosity, and honesty displayed by people born and raised in rural Cuba had to be perplexing for those who live where scheming, distrust, and suspicion are essential to survival and success. If in his childhood part of their kindness had rubbed off on him, only traces remained." 138

Readers will enjoy the story Steil trades with Sobeida about Cuban science that has the Chief proclaim "Starting tomorrow, we will be able to feed ourselves with stones." But just as it's not polite to reveal details of an exciting thriller like Comrades in Miami, it's not kosher to spill the beans about the punch line of that joke, either.

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