March 02 2011
Giving that Cuba is a country that claims 100 per cent literacy and where there are constant and severe shortages of even the most basic items (think soap), it’s hardly surprising that Havana is a hotspot for secondhand books.
In Havana Vieja, the Plaza de Armas has become the place for dozens of booksellers whose stalls do a fast trade in Che’s Bolivian Diaries and in Fidel Castro’s endless musings. I didn’t touch the latter; if his TV appearances are anything to go by, they could be rather tedious. What I did dig out and negotiate was a stamp album, not because I’m an anorak philatelist but because this one covered the first 10 years of revolutionary Cuba, ie, 1959-69. The quality of the commemorative series is extraordinary, the graphics superb and the palette full of zingy 1960s oranges, turquoises and lime greens. Cosmonauts, Olympics, the fishing fleet, transport, revolutionary heroes, tropical fruit, pigs: you name it, they celebrated it in stamps. But I was frustrated not to find larger graphics – something for my wall, for example, that was not one of the clichéd touristic daubs flogged at every street corner.
Eventually I found it, in a curious emporium near the Plaza de Armas on a road once famed for its publishers and bookshops. Lured in by an artful juxtaposition of artworks, antiques, old photos and books (inevitably both Che and Fidel featured), I then discovered a treasure-trove behind a caged parrot at the back. Here was a stack of film posters from Cuba’s prolific film institute which I later discovered has its own silkscreen workshop. Although they were from the 1990s, many had the same psychedelic palette and strong design of posters and artworks from the 1960s: with a poster for the film Fresa y Chocolate and a Warholesque rendering of the iconic Alberto Korda photo of Che (a poster for a documentary called Che – Comandante Amigo), I had found my joy.