A Cuban redemption story | August 30, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

- August 30, 2013

A Cuban redemption story

Copyright law, race, politics and music intersect in Stanford law professor's third novel

by Elena Kadvany

"Havana Requiem" by Paul Goldstein; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 308 pages; $26

Stanford University law professor Paul Goldstein thinks that "if you scratch any of the lawyer heroes in contemporary fiction in America, you don't have to scratch too deep to find Atticus Finch looking back at you."

This is all too true in Goldstein's latest novel, "Havana Requiem," which won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction in July. The prize, sponsored by the ABA Journal and the University of Alabama School of Law, is awarded each year to a novel that continues the tradition of the author it is named for, exemplifying the complex role lawyers play in society and celebrating the ideals embodied by "To Kill a Mockingbird's" Atticus Finch.

"Havana Requiem" is Goldstein's third novel featuring Michael Seeley, an intellectual- property attorney and modern-day incarnation of Finch for whom the rule of law "is in the marrow of his bones," Goldstein said.

Goldstein's third installment of legal thrillers takes Seeley, who works for a large law firm in New York City, to Cuba in a quixotic quest to help a group of Cuban musicians' reclaim the rights to music that had been granted to music publishers for far less than their current worth.

We meet Seeley — a recovering alcoholic whose past professional demise and failed marriage are referenced throughout the novel, serving as hints for what went down in Goldstein's first two novels — as he is trying to rebuild his career, taking on an art gallery for "gouging on its commission" to a painter, winning a case for a screenwriter whose film studio failed to fairly share profits.

"But these were wealthy clients," Goldstein writes. Seeley — forever Finch-inspired — prefers his pro bono cases, impoverished artists whom no one else will represent or fight for.

So when Héctor Reynoso, a black Cuban who is fighting to reclaim the rights to music he and a group of 13 musicians made in the 1940s and 1950s in Havana, walks into Seeley's New York City office, Seeley is immediately drawn in. Reynoso's character is inspired by Compay Segundo, a Cuban guitarist, singer and composer who was part of the famed Buena Vista Social Club.

From the first lines of the novel — "The man could have climbed from the frame of an ancient newsreel: a sharecropper escaping the Depression-era South with the last scraps of his possessions; a skin-and-bones survivor fleeing yet another sub-Saharan catastrophe." — the reader gets a feel for Goldstein's writing style, which is dedicated to in-depth description and detailed imagery.

"Black but light-skinned, erect as a recruit, he waited inside the office doorway, intelligent eyes darting about, undecided between entering and escaping. Was it apprehension that Michael Seeley detected, or just curiosity? Fear that Seeley wouldn't take him as a client, or that he would?"

Seeley does, unknowingly entering into a saga that involves not only copyright issues, but also race, government corruption, a Cuban love interest, murder and much intrigue.

Goldstein himself said he fell in love with copyright his second year at Columbia Law School, from which he graduated in 1967.

"I didn't like law school the first year," Goldstein said. "I decided that if I was going to stay, I was going to somehow connect it to what was really my passion, which was literature."

At the time, the closest thing to literature within the law world was copyright, so he took a course and "absolutely fell in love with the field."

He started his teaching career at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he stayed for eight years until coming to Stanford in 1975. He began as a professor of law and in 1985, was appointed as the Lillick Professor of Law.

Throughout his career, he has written both fiction and nonfiction relating to intellectual-property law, becoming an internationally recognized expert on the topic. He also served as chairman of the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment Advisory Panel on Intellectual Property Rights in an Age of Electronics and Information for a year and since 1988 has been of counsel to the international law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP in its intellectual-property group.

He said that the ideas for his intellectual-property-themed fictional works, including the first two Seeley novels, "Errors and Omissions" (2006) and "A Patent Lie" (2012), were all born from case work, a law class or research he was working on.

"Havana Requiem" came out of a research project he embarked on to examine authors' rights in communist countries. He chose Cuba as a country with a socialist legal system as well as "robust popular culture." He hired a research assistant who had spent time in Cuba and is fluent in Spanish (Goldstein is not).

"In the midst of that I said 'You know, it's a great research project and it's ongoing, but I think there's a story here. I think there's a novel here as well.'"

Goldstein's research took him (legally) to Cuba for a week in March 2010, where he interviewed numerous people within the "music establishment" — collecting societies (bodies given the authority to license copyrighted works and collect royalties on behalf of its members), record labels, music publishing companies — and observed the places that he recreates in "Havana Requiem."

"It was sort of you like you were writing a 19th-century historical novel and then you get to go there," Goldstein said of his trip.

The hotel Goldstein stayed at, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, appears in the novel (Seeley stays there, too). There is flowing description of Soviet-era buildings, crumbling tenements, palm trees, the stagnant heat and everywhere Seeley looks, remnants of the revolution that replaced Cuban President Fulgencio Batista with communist revolutionary Fidel Castro in 1959.

After Reynoso mysteriously disappears, Seeley's plan is to visit as many of the 13 Cuban musicians, or more appropriately, composers, as possible and get them to sign a termination form, which under copyright law allows singers and songwriters who transferred copyright to an outside entity, such as a music publisher, to terminate this transfer after a certain period of time. Getting the composers to sign proves difficult, as many fear retribution from "La Seguridad," the Cuban police, and MININT, the Ministry of the Interior. MININT, the Castro regime's main governing arm, was known to be an oppressive, corrupt force.

Cuban and American politics become central in the novel, with each governments' financial and political interests deeply intertwined.

Another central theme is race, but it is also about the music, or music as a vessel for "la cultura," authentic Cuban culture.

"It's been a long-term interest of mine going way back before I started writing novels to promote author's right in this country. And that's Michael Seeley's hang-up. He doesn't really care that much about copyright, he cares about authors and authors' rights."

In this, there are again echoes of Atticus Finch. And just as Finch fought for legal, racial and social justice in Alabama, Seeley fights until the end to restore not only the composers' ownership, but also their right to choice, freedom and hope.

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.