Occasionally the challenge of moving around in time comes up in my writing workshop. We write essays triggered by themes, rather than strict chronology, so naturally we end up with a crazy quilt of pieces about different times, places, and people in our lives. How to patch the quilt together so it makes sense?
A book I read recently used time as an extraordinary literary device. Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire is about a childhood in 1950s Havana, centered on Carlos Eire’s experience as part of the Pedro Pan airlift of children that brought him to America in 1959.
The New Yorker review says: “His deeply moving memoir describes his life before Castro, among the aristocracy of old Cuba—his father, a judge, believed himself to be the reincarnation of Louis XVI—and, later, in America, where he turned from a child of privilege into a Lost Boy. Eire’s tone is so urgent and so vividly personal (he is even nostalgic about Havana’s beautiful blue clouds of DDT) that his unsparing indictments of practically everyone concerned, including himself, seem all the more remarkable.”
I’m a fan of childhood memoirs, and the sub-genre, the Awful Childhood memoir. One reason I love these books is a child’s ability to report on the imperfections of adults without judging, simply because whatever the family’s adults do represents “normal” from a child’s point of view. Carlos Eire’s experience of Paradise Lost could well qualify for that sub-genre. I loved the book for the author’s detailed and lively recreations of life both before and after the move, as well as those “unsparing indictments.”
But what really struck me about Eire’s story was the way he told it–with such fluidity about time. From page one we know the blow is coming–he will be forced to leave his beloved world. The mystery for us is not what will happen, but when and how. Even as the author dances around it, flashing forward to life in America and back to his Cuban idyll, he keeps us focused on that pivotal moment like spectators at a boxing match, watching for the K.O. punch.
I didn’t know a story could be told compellingly from multiple time periods until I read Waiting for Snow in Havana. It left me intrigued by the possibilities of taking apart the impersonal march of time, then stitching it back together in a design of one’s own making.