A Private House

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Unlike my other novels, A Private House isn’t a “thriller,” although it has plenty of intrigue. Rather, it’s a psychological novel, with a political setting, that weaves together the stories of two women who find themselves in modern-day Havana. Lorraine, an older Canadian woman—quietly Christian—has come to Havana to honor the wish of a dying friend, gay, who has a Cuban lover. Mathilde is a young French journalist who’s writing the story of an aging Black Panther, a plane high jacker and exile from the 1960s. The two women are staying in the same hotel, and gradually their separate stories come together, merging in the extraordinary shadows and blinding glare of Castro’s great city.

The genesis of the novel is a little peculiar. For several years, I’d been stuck in Canada, doing my best to look after my elderly and infirm mother, but finally even she agreed that she’d be better off in an old age home and so I was partially released. I wanted to go somewhere. Why Cuba? Well, I’d never been there. Also, I knew three young men—Booker Sim, Malcolm Hearn, and Sacha Trudeau—who raved about the place. They’d spent a lot of time there, trying to make a documentary film about Habana vieja, the extraordinary, crumbling, fantastical “inner city” that’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable project, given the relationship between Castro and Sacha’s father—Pierre Trudeau, Canada's 15th Prime Minister—but it didn’t work out: the section of the Cuban administration in charge of the old city, being good socialists, wanted mucho dinero before they’d give permission to film there. However, in trying to set up their film, these young men had put together some contacts, which they generously gave me. One of these was a young, street-smart kid called Hamlet (his real name, so far as I ever discovered) who apparently knew the darker side of the city like the back of his hand. How could I find him? He had no fixed address, and no telephone, but Sacha told me, “just go into Belén and ask around, someone will know where he is.” After a couple of days in the city, I ventured to do this. Belén, in those days, was a little tougher than it is now…

The Old Lady of Belen

and even today it’s not the gentlest neighborhood in the world. As I went deeper into it, I was certainly aware that I was the only tourist in sight, and had a very pale face—as well as an expensive camera over my shoulder. I began asking for “Hamlet” without result…until a large, heavily muscled fellow shrugged and said, “He’s dead.” Of course I was somewhat taken aback, but apparently, he'd drowned in Havana harbor. I wanted to make sure it was the same person, so I asked if this was the man “who knew the Canadians.” Apparently so; and to convince me, my informant—to be anthropological—proceeded to introduce me to Hamlet’s father, who had set up a little shrine to his son in the entrance to his home, which included several pictures of him…as you can see.

A shrine to Hamlet

When I later emailed this photograph back to Canada, I was told it was indeed Hamlet, but I wasn't quite out of luck. My informant, Incubay by name, spoke fair English. I explained that I wanted to see inside the houses of people living in Belén, that I wanted to be able to photograph…

Belen family

...and I wanted to see some of the mysteries of santeria, the Cuban “folk religion.” He agreed. And was as good as his word. A few days later, he took me all through the neighborhood, and I met all sorts of people, from men working a home distillery to ladies having their nails done by the local beautician; I even passed a pleasant hour with a charming santeria priestess. Naturally, for all this, I gave Incubay money. Two days later, I had a call from reception in my hotel: a Cuban wanted to see me. Cubans aren’t allowed to go up to the hotel rooms of tourists—for fear of political and other forms of corruption—so I came down to the lobby. My caller was a tall, good-looking Cuban in a Heineken cap. He explained that he was a santeria priest of high rank, that Belén was his turf, and that if any money was being doled out there, he wanted his share. I took him to lunch and bought him a number of Bucanero's, Heineken not being available. He spoke excellent English and knew Canada well—he’d been a sailor in the Cuban merchant marine—and was happy to answer all my questions about santeria. Indeed, much of what he told me—and what Incubay showed me—is reflected in A Private House.


Cuba is a Catholic country, but ordinary Cubans have often viewed the Church with a skeptical eye. During Cuba's wars of independence the hierarchy sided with Spain, the colonial power, and indeed most priests were Spanish, many returning home when Spain was finally defeated in 1898. As late as the 1960s, only a third of priests were Cuban-born, and the Church remained a church of the elite, heavily concentrated in the cities, where it provided schools and hospitals for the rich and middle-class. Today, the Church itself only claims about 60% of the population, and probably less than 5% attend mass regularly (by way of comparison, about 40% do in the United States, 28% in Canada.) But the difficulties of official Catholicism don't mean that Cubans lack religious feeling; on the contrary. The great rival to the Church on the island is entirely home-grown. A remarkable expression of Cuba's history, it's variously called Santeria, Regla de Ocha, or La Regla Lucumi. It's the religion of the descendants of slaves.

From the sixteenth century, the Spanish brought as many as a million Africans into Cuba and by 1840 something like 400,000 men, women and children were slaving in the fields of the tobacco and sugar plantations: slavery would last longer in Cuba than any other place in the Americas except for Brazil.

Overwhelmingly, Cuba's slaves came from West Africa, and most from Yorubaland, a territory that included modern-day Benin, Togo, and southwestern Nigeria.

Here, beginning in the twelfth century, the Yoruba people had built up a civilization that culminated in the Oyo Empire, one of the most powerful state systems in pre-colonial Africa. At the southern end of the Trans-Saharan trade routes, its wealth was based on salt, leather, horses, ivory and slaves, while its military might rested on a powerful cavalry. Beginning in the eighteenth century, that cavalry was used to conquer most of the land and kingdoms around them, conquests that produced thousands of slaves, who were then sold on to the Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, Americans and Dutch.

In their homeland, the Yoruba had participated in a rich and complex culture; in Cuba, uprooted and brutalized, most of this culture was lost. But their religion found an ingenious way to survive.

The Yoruba religion was based around the worship of a supreme being called Olodumare. Our destiny, according to their beliefs, was to join ourselves to It (not he or she, for Olodumare had no gender.) This was accomplished by leading a balanced life that included worship, but also the development of civic virtues and practices so that one's life would be righteous. Our spiritual selves could reach out to Olodumare through direct prayer and petition, but also by employing the help and guidance of Orishas. These Orishas were divinities, beings that acted as intermediaries between the human world and the supernatural. Each Orisha had its attributes; each Orisha had his or her own story; each Orisha had a particular sphere of power that a worshiper in need could call upon. For the enslaved Yoruba, living in Catholic Cuba, the Orishas established a clear correspondence between their own beliefs and the beliefs of their masters—for do the Holy Saints not have their stories, attributes, and realms? So the Yoruba's traditional religion survived, in secret, inside Catholicism. It was eventually called Santeria, 'the worship of saints.'

The links between Catholicism and Santeria can be seen in the photograph at the top of this page—it shows the altar of a Santeria priestess called Caridad. Anyone familiar with Catholic hagiography will at once see that the statue on the right bears all the signs and attributes of Saint Barbara...

...she holds the sword of her martyrdom—she was beheaded by her father—and beside her stands the tower in which he imprisoned her (and in which she cut a third window, to represent the trinity.) Her story tells of her refusal to relinquish her faith, the miracles that allowed her to persevere in it, and the retribution finally suffered by her father who was struck down by lightning, an explosion of fire. It is this last detail that hints at her transformation within Santeria: for to the Yoruba she wasn't a lady at all, but Chango, the Orisha whose attributes and qualities include drumming, dancing, thunder, fire, male virility, drinking, revelry and leadership; his sign is a double-bladed axe. Here's a particularly fine (and not too fearsome) representation of him by the master Yoruba carver, Toibo. It was probably done in the 1920s and is now in the Brooklyn Museum. The horse is another attribute—which you can also see in the Saint Barbara altar.

If we look at the left side of the altar, the same process is at work. The statue is apparently Our Lady of Mercy, dressed in white, devotees sheltering at her feet...

...but she's really Obatala, eldest of the Orishas (father of many of them) who is their judge when they quarrel and the Orisha who always strives to bring peace. He is the creator of human bodies and his breath brings those bodies to life. As with Our Lady, he's always dressed in white and his devotees wish to lead lives as unblemished as his robes.

In both these examples two things are happening. First is the syncretism that mixes and melds the two religions; the second is the esoteric quality Santeria takes on. From the beginning, it's hidden, a religion of secrets that are revealed only to its initiates. Rather than relying on a sacred text—some equivalent to the Bible or Koran—all its traditions and rituals are transmitted orally, from priest to initiate. Initiation is complex, taking the individual into a particular ile, or Orisha house—the house of the "godfather"—and into an ever deeper relationship with the Orishas themselves. So the initiate passes through the mysteries of the ilekes, the colored necklaces of the Orishas, and the techniques of divination (often worked out with cowrie shells) that establish connection with them. Every successful initiate must pass through a crucial stage, the kariocha, in which the individual's guardian Orisha is fused with the head of the initiate—in a spiritual possession, but also literally, through small incisions in the scalp. After this, the initiate is a santera (or santero if a man)—a priest in his or her own right. For the next year, the initiate must always wear white, a public sign of this new status, as modelled by the two ladies in the photo below.

Santeria novices

A further stage of initiation is open only to men. The santero becomes a babalawo. This isn't quite a "high priest" as is often thought (a babalawo can't perform kariocha, for example) but rather membership in the Ifa sect, which is largely concerned with divination (using a wooden board, the Opon) and ceremonies of cleansing.

How important is Santeria in Cuban life? Its membership is difficult to establish, and many Cubans deride it. Yet it touches all Cuban culture, high and low. Think of Desi Arnaz singing Babalu on I Love Lucy—the song is actually a hymn to the Orisha Babalu Aye (the Orisha of the earth and healing), and don't worry, Desi knew it. But then there's the great masterpiece of Cuba's most important modern painter, Wilfredo Lam. The Jungle, he said, was "intended to communicate a psychic state," and was inspired by Santeria.

Wilfredo Lam's "The Jungle"

In the end, I think you can only say that Santeria is as Cuban as rice and beans, baseball, or a cold mojito.


Money is a commonplace mystery. We all carry it around, and take it for granted, but what is it exactly? As a medium of exchange, it seems logical enough because it expresses all values in one standard—whether we're buying perfume or lumber, paying for a movie ticket or a doctor's appointment, the price can be expressed the same way, i.e., in dollars or pesos or euros. But underlying this is money's other attribute—it acts as a store of value, we save it, invest in it. But money is inherently worthless. There's no silver in the U.S. "silver" dollar at all. And though you could once exchange your paper dollar for gold, now all you'll get is another piece of paper. That's why inflation is viewed so anxiously by central banks and monetary authorities the world over. During inflationary episodes, the problem isn't so much that prices are rising but that the inherent worthlessness of money is being revealed. Our money is "fiat" money. It's only worth anything because the government says so and we choose to believe it; once that belief is lost, who knows what will happen.

But money is mysterious in another way as well. It has enormous psychological significance and arouses our strongest emotions. We lust after it. We hoard it. Nothing can be more Freudian than "filthy lucre." As Humphrey says, staring at the Maltese falcon, it's the stuff that dreams are made of. Money is embedded in the deepest layers of our psychology. Money seems rational; in fact it's anything but.

A Private House is one of the few novels I can think of that's interested in money this way—not just making it and spending it, but its very nature. It's a theme that came directly out of my first visit to Cuba. Here was a country that was supposed to be "socialist" or at least anti-capitalist, so it seemed reasonable to assume that it wasn't particularly mercenary. How wrong I was. No doubt I was naive, but I'd never been in a place where people were as money-obsessed. It was all people could think of, at least in their inter-actions with a norteamericano such as myself. Sure, people the world over—especially poor people—want to make money but I'd never encountered such a fascination with money's ins and outs, especially exchanging it. Of course I quickly discovered the reason for this. Cuba has two currencies. Both are called pesos but they were and are utterly different. The peso that Cubans carry around in their wallets is the national currency, the moneda nacional—but tourists use something else, the Cuban Convertible Peso…worth, when I was first there, 25 times as much. What was this all about?

The Cuban Convertible Peso—CUC—is, technically, a foreign exchange certificate. It's exchangeable only within Cuba: it is not traded internationally. So you buy CUCs when you enter the country and (usually) sell them back when you leave. The exchange rate for these transactions is based on the Convertible Peso's value being at par with the US dollar, i.e., 1 convertible peso = 1 US dollar. The value of all other currencies is then set off this relationship; if the pound sterling is worth 1.75 US dollars, then the pound will buy 1.75 Convertible Pesos; if the Canadian dollar is worth .94 US dollars, then it will buy .94 Convertible Pesos. Exchanges can be made at banks (there are eight commercial banks in Cuba, though all are controlled by the Central Bank) or money exchange kiosks called Cadecas.

In practical terms, the CUC is tourist money. Tourists use it to settle their hotel bills and bar bills, rent their cars and so forth. But it's a little more complicated that this, because there's effectively a separate CUC economy. All sorts of goods—especially luxury goods—are only sold in CUC's, so if Cubans want to buy them they have to get hold of CUCs first. This introduces some extraordinary distortions into the Cuban economy and Cuban society. Since people working in the tourist industry have the easiest access to CUCs—through tips—those jobs are coveted, sometimes fought over, certainly bribed for. And since a bartender's tips over a single night may be worth more than a teacher's salary for a month, is it any wonder that there's a shortage of teachers in Cuba? I once talked to a man supervising a car park (a rather dusty vacant lot) who'd formerly been a teacher—but the tips he made from tourists far surpassed his salary. This sort of distortion tends to be compounded. Many Cuban parents now feel that the public education system has deteriorated, and so hire private tutors for their children—who insist on being paid, of course, in Convertible Pesos.

The system works to divide the tourist and native. As a tourist, there's actually nothing legally to prevent you exchanging your CUCs for moneda nacional and shopping in local "Cuban" stores; but you'll often get a lot of strange looks, though not quite nasty. And many locations have special tourist sections; that is to say, the tourists, with their CUCs, are segregated from ordinary Cubans. A good example (which I used in the novel) is Coppelia, Havana's wonderful ice cream parlor. Lorraine manages to get into the main building, not the tourist "trap" to one side.

But the most fascinating way tourists will encounter this divide is in confronting the many ingenious scams Cubans have developed to part tourists from their CUCs. I've described several in A Private House, and have encountered many others on my trips to the island. The classic example, now literally long in the tooth, involves a Cuban dressed as a Fidelista—forage cap; guerrila greens: if he was truly a veteran, of course, he'd be into his 70s—who will offer you a nice shiny three peso coin, bearing the likeness of Che Guevera…

in exchange for your three peso note…but of course your note is three Convertible Pesos which means it's worth about twenty-five times as much as his coin.

Money rules our lives, and we submit ourselves to this rule. Its rationality seems inherent—its calculation allies it to mathematics and science. Insidiously, it draws in ethics—is the best price not our definition of the good? So finally the head of Goldman, Sachs confidently asserts that he is "doing God's work." Cuban money may illustrate—if you'll permit me—the other side of the coin: corruption, criminality, mendacity. What is the nature of money, its true meaning and value? It's a question that's woven through A Private House, though I hope with sufficient subtlety that most readers won't find it intrudes. Before I started the novel—as a way of clearing the decks—I wrote a little essay on money in the light of Marx and Freud; for those interested, I've published it on another part of this site.