Read of the Week

Close But No Cigar: A True Story of Prison Life in Castro’s Cuba

Stephen Purvis

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Review: John Harvey

Cuba is one of those countries inexorably linked to romantic sentiment.

Fidel Castro’s revolution, idyllic stretches of coastline and cities from a bygone era combine to make it a nation on every traveller’s bucket list.

Che Guevara is a secular god to millions around the world, and in the mind’s eye the notion of sipping on a rum cocktail while enjoying one of Cuba’s famous cigars is a scenario straight out of paradise.

Yet lift the veil, and what lies beneath is a paranoid, ruthless regime that continues to rob its people of freedoms most take for granted.

British businessman Stephen Purvis believed that as an expat settled within Cuba and assisting the government with myriad development projects he would be exempt from the attentions of the authorities.

Yet by simple virtue of his ties to a businessman who raised red flags for the regime, he was held without charge for months, facing gruelling, at times farcical interrogations and held in detention centres from hell.

In this gripping memoir, he takes the reader on a journey peppered with sadness and sardonic wit as he struggles to maintain his grip on reality, befriending characters from an international rogue’s gallery and forming alliances against sinister gangs of drug dealers and murderers who have taken a dislike to him.

There is absolutely no attempt to disguise his bitterness at his time in the prisons, or more especially, the craziness of the wardens and the orders they follow without question.

“There is no right or wrong, no centre of gravity: we are all just hanging on by our fingertips in a place beyond natural law or society. A place where on a Sunday afternoon your friend can decide to stamp on your head and stab you, and where the upholders of the law are rotten to their stinking core,” he writes.

The excellence of his prose is that it catches each emotion to the extent that the reader is right there with him; the crushing loneliness he feels once his family has visited and disappear through the prison gates; the sheer uncertainty of whether he will ever see the outside world again; the nightmare of trying to explain his innocence to guards who find his protestations amusing.

Each page creates severe discomfort in the reader, yet it must be turned to find out if there is any respite on the next. There seldom is, but that only intensifies the search for hope, however small.

There is a bloody rawness to Close But No Cigar, but that’s what makes it so good.

In order to ensure there can be no doubt that Cuba is a country mired in chaos and not the picture postcard presented to the world, Purvis needed to convey its atrocities with extreme prejudice.

Most telling is the message that this could just as easily happen to anyone.