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  • Writer's pictureBeverly Stoddart

Robert Wheeler and Hemingway's Havana

In Robert Wheeler’s book, Hemingway’s Havana: A Reflection of the Writer’s Life in Cuba, the foreword is written by America Fuentes, the granddaughter of Gregorio Fuentes, the captain of Ernest Hemingway’s boat, Pilar. The two men shared a great love of each other, of Cuba and the sea from the first day they met to the day Hemingway died. They were forever together. While living in Cuba, Ernest Hemingway wrote his masterpiece, The Old Man and The Sea. The writing of a foreword is an honor and a privilege. As Wheeler was honored by America’s words, he too has the great privilege of writing the foreword in the upcoming re-release of another of Hemingway’s masterpieces, The Sun Also Rises, in January 2022.

Wheeler’s book, Hemingway’s Havana, is a markedly different one from the black and white Paris book. Havana gives us beautiful, colorful photos of the city. Each photo is a work of art, sometimes unexpected, other times as you would imagine, presenting the beauty of this island nation.

He begins the book with a few simple words. “All I wanted was to know that I experienced a small and lovely glimpse.” The accompanying photo shows us the beautiful blue sea seen through a small round hole as if we are looking through a fence to what promises to be on the other side. He tells us, “I had to let go and allow the people, and the island itself, to teach me the story I needed to write.”

To find that story, Wheeler spent 37 days in Havana in July and August 2015, living with a local family and capturing the images with the same Leica camera used for the black and white Paris photos. In a Leica Camera Blog, Robert has said about his trip and the photos that he began to call the camera the Queen. “She [the camera] is polished and dignified, confident in her role, and she produces lovely offspring.”

I ask Robert to talk about the Malecon, Havana’s Balcony. In the book, he writes, “Malecon – a meeting place for many, for two, or all alone with one’s art.” The accompanying photo shows us a blue sky fading into the evening, and a man and a woman sit facing one another on the Malecon. We can only guess what intimacies they are sharing.

While the English definition for Malecon is pier, he says it’s not.

“It’s not a pier. It’s about a 3-4’ high stone wall. You have a major boulevard, and then you have a sidewalk, and then there’s the ocean, the sea. You stand there, and you look out over a balcony. This is their balcony. Havana is a home, and this is the home’s balcony. In the city of Havana is a place where everybody lives on top of one another, and it’s hot. The people of Havana need a place like the Malecon, where the sea and the stars and sun and the people come together. You’ve got older people, babies, young lovers, just everybody is out there eating and drinking, and there’s music. This is part of the beauty of their culture.”

In the book, he writes, “Hemingway knew well that life on Havana’s Malecon was filled with intrigue and beauty. Cuban bodies, in many geometrical forms, adorn this five-mile-long seawall at all times during the hot days and well into the dark nights.”

I ask what he means by Cuban bodies in many geographical forms?

“You know how Picasso painted and that whole idea that everybody is swaying and moving. If you try to paint it in a realist style, realism, you will miss everything. So, you don’t look at it that way. You see it like Picasso. You know there are pieces here, an arm from somebody’s body there. Everything is one on the Malecon instead of individuals. That’s why I wrote that—it was this whole graceful movement.”

We turn our conversation to the sea and Cuban fishermen. He writes, “To be a Cuban fisherman is to have a love of solitude. These men are quiet and humble, and a significant part of who they are suffers when on land.”

There is a particular picture Robert uses to speak of Cuban fishermen silently. In a photo that seems to be drained of all its color is a small boat on the sea. In the boat are three men standing. Their images are reflected in the water. One is working the rudder. A bit of white wake shows in the trail. Two men stand at the front of the boat, the bow, and one holds what looks like are a gathering of nets. The other man simply stands there watching. The boat is hardly bigger than a rowboat. It makes me wonder where they would even fit the catch of the day onboard. Are they coming in from fishing or going out? Is it dawn or dusk? We see just the tip of this iceberg. The words that accompany the photo are, “The language of fishermen needs no words.” Robert writes, “For these men, the sea has been their whole life, and they knew that Hemingway’s life, too, was the blue sea and the fish that lived in it.”

I ask him to tell me what the language of Cuban fishermen is.

“Silence,” he says simply.

In Hemingway’s Havana, Robert turns the lens of his camera from the sea to The Land. He writes, “One must always remember that Cuba was Hemingway’s most permanent and treasured home.” Wheeler shows us, through the photos, why the intensive traveler spent more time in Cuba than anywhere else. Robert’s photos show the city teeming with people after a rainstorm. We watch a lovely woman reach for a flower from a blossoming tree and then come upon an old woman sitting next to her grocery cart filled with food and flowers. Wheeler writes, “She is old, caught in the silence of a bustling street.” The photos are romantic and draw us into the life and the images Ernest Hemingway would have seen compelling him to settle there. Wheeler tells us, “Walking in Cuba is not simply a measure of reaching a physical destination but is often a way of strengthening relationships and moving them forward.”

Please, I am not glossing over the problems of Cuba, but Robert Wheeler’s book allows us to look more deeply into this place and see into the hearts of Cubans.

Raul Villarreal, author of Hemingway’s Cuban Son and a favorite book of Robert Wheeler, is quoted on his book jacket. Villarreal writes, “Roberto’s words and images of my homeland are eloquently and beautifully balanced and exist in harmony like the ocean and the sky. His images and words are fused with the same magic, elusiveness, and beauty of the island of Cuba and its people.”

Now though, I invite you to return to the picture accompanying this article to see Robert Wheeler through his work and his eyes. In a nightly ritual after a day of exploring and absorbing Hemingway’s Cuba, Wheeler sits in a favorite restaurant at a wood and wicker table and captures his thoughts in a small notebook. A glass of Havana Club rum sits in need of a refill. The constant items, his tinted glasses, and his pen rest for a moment as he snaps a picture. A nearly finished Cuban cigar with the ashes resting in the bottom of the bowl and his lighter is a part of the end-of-day observance. This photo lets us into the 37 days of Robert Wheeler’s life in Cuba, and I, for one, would gladly sit and sip there with him.

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