What could have been a dense legal thriller made more so by complicated international politics has been infused with the spirit of the Cuban people and the music inspired by their long struggle against oppression. When elderly Cuban composer Hector Reynoso comes to Michael Seeley’s office looking for representation for himself and other composers of original Cuban music, Seeley has just returned to his former place of employment. Now in a smaller office, he is rebuilding a clientele that favors artists, musicians and pro bono cases for an upscale New York law firm that is broadening its portfolio to include more international clients.
At odds with certain board members, as a partner Seeley is able to win the required number of votes to take on Hector’s case before the legal statute times out. Over fifty years ago, this soulful music was sold to publishers for a fraction of its value, which has now soared into the millions. Seeley’s biggest problem comes from the head of his department, Hobie Harriman, who attempts to block his representation of Reynoso by manipulating a conflict of interest with the firm’s other clients. That action only makes Mike more determined to pursue the case on behalf of the original composers.
When Hector disappears, first from New York and then from Havana, Seeley travels to Cuba with a sheaf of documents for Hector and the others to sign, the expiration date for the action fast approaching. Once away from the city bustle and hushed but pressurized corridors of his powerful firm, Mike finds himself in another world. Teeming with crowds and traffic, Havana is a blend of humanity, music and subtle political intimidation, a city that changes by neighborhood from wealthy to shabby, riddled with poverty and neglect. But always there is the music, songs that lift troubled souls, remind them of who they are in a culture rich in history, pain, revolution and passion: “This is the most subversive music of all. It makes practical people dream.”
Mike’s guide is the gorgeous, enigmatic Amaryll, who seduces him with her beauty and intelligence, the haunted look in her eyes telegraphing grief and struggle. Accompanying Mike to visit the various composers who must sign the release, Amaryll affords him a unique view of life behind the scenes in Havana, the habits of a population living in constant paranoia, of secret police and neighborhood spies. Caught up in the emotional vortex that is Havana, Seeley begins to truly appreciate the value of Cuba’s music.
When Hector is murdered, Seeley is even more devoted to accomplishing his goal on behalf of his clients. In a conundrum of politics (including the insistent meddling of an individual from the US State Department), passion and personal crisis, for the first time Seeley is able to see himself clearly after facing interrogation by the secret police, kidnapping by thugs, imprisonment, a self-destructive drunken rampage fueled by frustration and the impossibility of being with the woman he has grown to love.
Goldstein beautifully captures the Cuban people and their music, the essence of their struggle and the intensity of life lived in danger, a sharp contrast to the gloved fists of the New York corridors of power, where brutality hides behind a civil façade. Like its music, Havana transcends the confines of legality and diplomacy in this moving and memorable novel.