Algerian novelist Amel Bachiri has decided to explore unfamiliar territory for Arabic literature in her sixth novel Picasso’s Bats, which is set in Cuba.
The country is known for Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and cigars, but Cuban society itself has rarely if ever been directly explored by an Arab novel.
The novel’s dedication is “to those who unfortunately lost the capability to dream”, a phrase that gives us a hint that dreams might still come true in the real world no matter how weird and unrealistic they are.
Bachiri thus gives her readers a wakeup call: dreams and passions can still be achieved.
She chose the late 1960s to set her novel. Her main character is a painter, Alvaro, a man who thinks of himself as “a man without luck; providence gave up on me at my first breath.”
His has one, over-riding obsession: to meet Pablo Picasso. Nothing else moves him; his whole life and every action he takes revolves around achieving the goal of meeting his hero.
The whole novel is a build up to that moment: will he meet Picasso or not? What will happen if and when that meeting actually takes place?
The writer is not able to explain that obsession of Alvaro. Even when asked directly by one of his friends “why do you want to meet Picasso?” there was no clear answer and the writer took the conversation in another direction.
The goal he has chosen is difficult; he is a young Cuban trying to reach the most famous painter of his time, who lives in France, and without knowing a lot about the legendary painter, or any specific purpose from meeting itself or what he would do after meeting with the great Picasso if the encounter occurs.
The novel takes us into Alvaro's world and explores what he does to reach his goal.
As a tourist hustler he manages to marry an old French woman who lives in the same city as Picasso in western France.
He was ashamed to do it yet couldn’t help himself. His friends and neighbours were disgusted with the marriage, especially as he left behind him a woman that loves him more than life itself, but “crazy Isabella” would not help in achieving his purpose.
He travels with his new bride her and eventually leaves her to work in a perfume lab while still trying to meet Picasso and hanging around his palace in a feeble, unsuccessful attempt to catch a glimpse of the great painter.
Then the novel deals with Picasso’s reputation in the small city in which he lives. According to those who met him and saw him at the bull fights (which Picasso is fond of), he is arrogant, does not mix with the locals and lives in his own world away. We learn that Picasso stated that he prefers bats to women.
“Women are afraid that bats will get stuck in their hair, while he sees them as the kindest birds and mammals altogether, their eyes are full of intelligence and their touch is silky and soft, unlike many women.”
A weird fact about the master painter, hence the novel’s title. He actually did say that in an interview, which gives the reader a glimpse of the artist's odd ideas, mixed up with the genius of his paintings.
Another interesting fact about Picasso that the reader might not be familiar with is his struggle against the Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco within the Communist Alliance during the Spanish Civil War. The novel tells a little about the struggle and the suffering that the Spaniards endured under the dictatorship.
With a novel taking place in Cuba, politics has to be integrated, especially in the 1960s when the murder of Che Guevara occurred. The mourning that accompanied his tragic betrayal and assassination by the Bolivian forces are described briefly.
The writer does not go into too much detail about how the Cubans received the news, but rather mentions the event only. It coincides with the day that Alvaro marries the older lady in the French embassy in Havana, a bad sign from Alvaro's point of view, yet he continued to pursue the unrealistic journey he chose for himself.
The novel is successful in capturing Cuban society’s spirit. Poverty and misery, women choosing the oldest profession just because there is no other way to sustain a modest living, the decadence that stain some characters with open viciousness towards the weaker and the poorer while showing the “joie de vivre” for each of these colourful personalities.
The novelist has actually lived in Cuba and was able to describe the society that she experienced.
The influence of the Spanish culture is clear in the making of the Alvaro character. The writer went after the Don Quixote type of personality: one that is memorable, with uncountable fallacies, and not able to attract sympathy for his goal or his behaviour, yet gets the reader curious about the expected meeting with Picasso and its result.