Experience surreal Cuban prison life in Close But No Cigar

Havana Cuba is such a beautiful city, but not for someone accused of selling state secrets.


One day, on something akin to a whim, author Stephen Purvis, his wife and four children upped roots and headed for Castro’s Cuba, or should that be Castros’?  

For, since Raul took over from his brother, things have literally gone from bad to worse.

While Stephen is focused on his architectural work, the country is sliding into even more repression; more people have been encouraged to name names in order that everyone else can be blamed for the appalling mess that Cuba has become.  It seems that the only thing keeping it afloat is the irrepressible Cuban psyche. People who might not even get jobs in a sane society are here held up as fine examples of humanity; indeed, it appears as though the inmates are in charge of the asylum but none of this affects Stephen until he is forcibly taken from his home on the possibility that he might be corrupt, a subject that officialdom can truly claim to have much expertise on.

Ad. Article continues below.

The prison, a state one (as distinct from a “normal” one), means that he is continually interrogated in the hope he will expose not only himself but many others so they can then justify their existence.  It also means bunking in with three others in a room barely large enough for one, getting to see sunlight for 15 minutes a week (though only if you’re in favour) and trying to stay sane, something those who commit suicide in here cannot.

When you are allowed out of your cell you have to walk with head bowed, hands behind your back, not look at anyone and stay within one foot of the left-hand wall.  Also, you have no name, Stephen has become two-one-seven.  It’s classic KGB-Stasi type stuff, the only difference being that Cuba is disorganized.  They have a saying, “For every solution, we have a problem”.

Meanwhile, his wife can’t handle the situation and cracks under the strain.  Fortunately, Stephen’s mother flies out from England and they have several friends who come to the domestic rescue but it’s not going well. As for lawyers, well, best of luck there; the system is contrived to suit the gaolers and they’ll organize to let them in sometime   ….   or other.

Eventually, months later, without any charges being laid against him, he is moved to a more conventional prison where the inmates are drug and people smugglers in the main.  Many stories emerge about what happens to the drugs when they are busted in Cuba, most suggesting that the authorities merely take and resell them.

One thing happened that sums up just how inept the populace is.  During the transfer, the prison van stopped several times to ask locals where the other prison was because they had no idea.

Ad. Article continues below.

In the new prison, Purvis gets sunlight and they have sports, of a sort, soccer being the most popular but the fouls can be very painful.  By now his family has managed to get back to England and he has actually had a couple of contacts with his lawyer, but a year has passed and he still hasn’t been charged.

When he finally gets to court it transpires that “illicit activities” are what it’s all about but, even the authorities eventually concede they haven’t any case so that, after another couple of weeks, he is actually released.

He returns to England and spends time with his family, but doesn’t cope too well mentally and ends up taking a job in Myanmar where the contrast with Cuba is noted.  Myanmar has realised the error of its ways and is doing something about it and Stephen is part of that scenario, putting his designing skills to good use.

The book ends when he’s on a trip out in the forests and mountains and has a revelation that causes him to get a seat on the next plane home.

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  It’s easy to understand and follow, gives the reader many interesting insights into Cuban life and has what seems like a happy ending.  My only criticism is that one or two things are left unsaid, or not clarified in depth, probably to protect his family more than anything else.

Close But No Cigar by Stephen Purvis, (published by Hachette Australia – read extract here) is available from Dymocks. Click here to learn more