Breathe by Leila Segal | Books

John Lavin reviews Breathe by Leila Segal, a collection of  short stories revealing Cuban representation from the Western perspective.

The stories in Leila Segal’s debut collection are all set in Cuba, a country which the London-born author lived in for five years, and has subsequently – for the purposes of this work at least – adopted as her muse. However, the central concern of many of the stories collected here is not so much Cuba itself, as Cuba when viewed through the eyes of Western visitors to the country. There is an almost constant jarring of outlooks and perspectives between the Western protagonists and the Cubans that they form relationships with, as though the two different nationalities each possessed a worldview and sense of logic which can somehow never quite meet in harmony.

breatheIan McEwan famously used the following passage by Cesare Pavese as the epigraph to his Venice-set, novel of innocents abroad, The Comfort of Strangers:

‘Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.’

It is an epigraph which could also work very well for Breathe, even if it is not a work with such sinister overtones as McEwan’s. Segal’s Western characters are in a constant state of vulnerability, having only limited acquaintance with the Cuban culture and language. They are much reliant on the comfort of strangers, something which a story like ‘Sabbatical’ makes abundantly clear. The protagonist, Carol, is vexed when Telma, the old lady in whose house she is boarding, serves a can of tuna as part of their evening meal. Carol had bought the tuna herself for her packed lunches, and unwisely mentions this to Telma, explaining that she already pays board for the food that her hostess provides. Needless to say Telma feels insulted. She reacts in a disproportionate manner, however, misrepresenting the content of what Carol has said to their mutual friends so that is seems not only rude but downright nasty. These friends – who it quickly becomes clear are really just acquaintances of Carol’s – all side with Telma, who they have known for many years and cannot believe capable of such overreaction and duplicity. In an instant it is as though an invisible drawbridge has been pulled up between Carol and the people she thought that she had befriended.

This story is, in a sense, a microcosm of the collection as a whole: which dramatizes the clash of capitalist values with Cuban socialist ones. Telma’s instinct is that everything in the house is there to be shared, while Carol is used to the idea of individual property, of buying something and it being respected as belonging to her and her alone. The Western characters in these stories are attracted to the socialist principles they find in Cuba, just as the Cubans are attracted to the seeming glamour of capitalist Westernisation. However, neither can escape their upbringing and conditioning and part of the poetic strength of these stories lies in this clash, perhaps especially in the loneliness that Segal’s Western characters’ experience when presented face to face with the strong familial and fraternal bonds of the Cubans that they encounter.

Segal is happy to question the motives of her Western characters and does not shy away from revealing them in a plain and unforgiving mirror. Take, for instance, a story like ‘The Party’, in which the female narrator is dating a Cuban called Charro. She is enjoying the time they have been spending together in Havana, enjoying, for instance, the way that he says ‘I lob you, honey’, but when they travel to Alamar for a party hosted by his family, cracks in their relationship begin to show almost immediately. She finds some of the behaviour at the partly alien and dislikes the fact that her boyfriend is behaving differently around his family, while paying less attention to her. In a sense it is like any difficult first meeting with a lover’s family but with the considerable addition of cultural and language barriers. The narrator subsequently upsets Charro and her hosts, first by not wanting to dance with a leering family member that she finds repulsive, and secondly by asking Charro to take her back to Havana. The reader can empathise with her disorientation and vulnerability, and with the unspoken worry that her boyfriend is using her for her money. On the other hand, we can also see Charro and his family’s perspective, and how her behaviour might come across as ungracious. We are also aware that the narrator has been rather enjoying the power she has over her lover, while living in the decaying glamour of Havana. She the affluent English girl and he the man who treasures the shiny red English dictionary she has given him… as well as a pound coin:

he’d pulled it from his pocket the day I arrived and kissed it to his lips.

Segal is excellent at giving multiple perspectives on relationships and situations like this, and in such a way that the reader can almost feel the crackle of tension between her characters, none of whom are unlikeable, even if all are marked by fallibility.

That line from Cesare Pavese, ‘Nothing is yours except the essential things …all things tending towards the eternal, or what we imagine of it’, feels particularly apt in connection with Breathe, because this poetic, philosophical collection has elemental priorities at its heart. There is a lot of space for the readers’ own interpretation in these pared back, heat-hazy stories, and Segal’s attention is mostly focussed on psychology rather than plot development. Indeed her minimalistic plot architecture can feel reminiscent of a filmmaker like Antonioni or Resnais in that it at times almost feels superfluous to the mood and psychological temperature of the stories. Locked within each cleverly conceived construction is a small poem of loneliness, made all the more poignant by the vast sky under which it takes place, and the question of who and why we are.