Latin American fiction holds special charms, and Dancing to Almendra is no exception. A wild tale wound around the last heyday of Cuba's domination by foreign influences and corruption, it centers on a spindly young man named Joaquin Porrata, a newspaper reporter who is sent to the zoo one day in 1957 to report on the death of a hippopotamus.
For reasons he can never later explain, a zookeeper named Bulgado takes him aside and tells him that the death of the animal was a botched signal to Umberto Anastasia, a notorious mob hitman who was brutally assassinated in a New York barbershop the same day. Porrata, who hates having to handle the entertainment beat for the paper anyway, is intrigued and begins to investigate, first on his own, then for a rival paper. He and Bulgado, who is constantly changing his name and who idolizes film star George Raft, form a bizarre friendship, exchanging clues about the mobsters whose machinations and collaboration with dictator Batista hold Cuba in dark bondage. Porrata's other friend, Julian, is a slick pimp whose mother, Aurora, is involved in a love affair with none other than Meyer Lansky, the prominent casino baron who operates out of Miami and Vegas. Together the odd couple dance the nights away to the strains of "Almendra." It is this relationship which will ultimately save Porrata's life.
Porrata soon meets Yolanda, a beautiful, sensuous older woman who is missing an arm after a tragic mishap as a magician's assistant. Her memories of life in the circus and her own entanglement with the Mafia make up a mysterious element to the story, sort of a "dark side on acid." Yolanda's first love was a homosexual dance master who was afflicted with leprosy, and later she sleeps with a Mafiosi, a fact which gains Porrata, when he becomes her lover, some extremely negative attention.
Porrata learns – by experience – that Bulgado was telling him the truth: American mobsters deliver dead people to the Havana zoo – minus their heads – to be chopped up and fed to the lions. One horrible night, he is forced to participate in the hacking. The claim is made that Cuba keeps its gambling operations safe by simply murdering people who try to beat the system.
Another murder strikes closer to home and ties the story to what is happening in the mountains, where an unnamed bearded revolutionary is amassing a force to overthrow Batista and end the foreign mob influence forever. Porrata's brother, apparently a runner for the men with beards, is slain by the secret police after being tortured – the eyes are missing from the corpse.
When I first began reading the book, I wondered if I could sustain a belief that the first-person hero, Porrata, was a man, since the author was a woman. Montero postulates a sister for Porrata, a sensible but unhappy lesbian, perhaps a synthesis of herself and her male hero. By the end of the novel, I had forgotten that the author was female, so convincingly did she present the character of Joaquin Porrata.
"Almendra" was a popular Cuban song whose inane lyrics seem to Montero to symbolize the dance of death that was Cuban society prior to the revolution. People were locked in an embrace with evil, allowing themselves to be lulled into destruction in its ever-tightening grip.