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Book Review: Closed for Repairs, by Nancy Alonso; translated by Anne Fountain

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Cuba most readily elicits images of sun-drenched tourist destinations at affordable prices, Cuban cigars, Castro and communism. Nancy Alonso's book, Closed for Repairs, a collection of short stories, concerns itself with none of these. Rather, Closed for Repairs offers the reader glimpses of the lives of ordinary Cuban citizens.

The Spanish edition of the book, Cerrado por reparacion, was published in Havana, Cuba in 2003 by Ediciones Union and won Nancy Alonso the Alba de Cespedes prize for feminist fiction. A teacher of physiology with a background in biological science, she is one of Cuba's most acclaimed writers of short stories. Her first book of stories, Tirar la primera piedra (Casting the First Stone) was published in 1997. She has been anthologized in the volumes of Estatuas de Sal (1996), Rumba senza palme nee carezze (1996), and Cubana (1998). Curbstone Press brings us the English translation by Anne Fountain, coordinator of Latin American Studies at San Jose State University and professor of Latin American literature and culture.

Many of us, myself included, know little about Cuba aside from what we hear in the media. Unfortunately, for economic and political reasons, much of what we hear, especially from American media, is usually negative. While Canada's relationship with Cuba is less strained, much of what we hear tends still to be influenced by American views. I was pleasantly surprised recently by a couple of very interesting and largely positive and inspiring stories about Cuba on CBC's "Dispatches," including a report by Connie Watson on an American woman getting a free medical education in Cuba. But most often, what we hear is about Castro, communism, State oppression and poverty.

Anne Fountain's translation of Closed for Repairs offers English readers a welcome alternative view. Alonso has provided us with eleven windows into Cuban life, eleven short stories told in a simple and unassuming style as if we were merely sitting around the dining room table listening to family members recount how they encountered complicated and often difficult situations and circumstances, handling them with ingenuity and resourcefulness.

What I appreciate most about this collection of stories is that it is completely in the realm of the ordinary, the everyday. These stories do not mention political, social, or economic ideologies. Those are the divisive issues, the things that get in the way of understanding, that hinder dialog. Some say the personal is the political, but that is another kind of politics. These stories reference the backdrop, the day-to-day struggles with crumbling infrastructure — finding a public telephone that actually works, dealing with irregular bus schedules, and trying to get leaking water pipes fixed and potholes filled in; with economic constraints — finding ways to grow your own vegetables and herbs or raising animals for meat, tricking your way into "another year of breakfasts with milk" in your food rations, finding workarounds with limited access to water, and dealing with a leaking old house when you don't have the resources to fix it; and with bureaucracy–getting through to the right department(s) to get something fixed, finding clever ways to move when you can't sell your house, organizing an 'informal' visit of a government minister, and dealing with the side-effects of all of the above when the inspector comes to check out your place of work.

This collection of stories of ordinary people's everyday struggles under trying circumstances was frequently humorous, sometimes frustrating and sad, often inspiring, and at least once enraging. Closed for Repairs is a collection best read in little chunks, one or two stories at a sitting. They sink in best that way. There's much to reflect upon, and they are as memorable as if told by your own family around the dinner table. A great read!

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