04 February, 2014

King of Cuba: When tragedy turns into parody

King of Cuba
Cristina Garcia

Review by Jorge Reyes

In 1959, a country-wide feud started to divide my family. My family wasn't the only one, of course.  It was a country-wide feud.  It's a pretty old feud that has lasted so long, to this very day in 2014.  Not sure if by now we can call this tragic, or merely farcical.  Just don't tell that to my elders, some of whom have died cursing to die before the feud is over, others so old and with so much time in their hands that to them the feud has just begun.

The year 1959 is, of course, the date of the commencement of the Cuban Revolution when a young, dashing, rebel by the simple name of Fidel who masterminded a guerrilla warfare from the Sierra Maestra mountains with a few dozen men and women ultimately took control of Cuba's political system.  This Fidel promised from his lair deeply entrenched in the mountains many things that sounded too good to many Cubans, such as democratic and fair elections, the rule of law, economic prosperity, etc.  Who, of course, didn't want these things for their beautiful paradise, so mired in dictators, suicides, histrionic politicians, and economic dependency to foreign powers?

It's an old history of almost biblical proportions, but one that still resonates in certain parts of Miami by the mere mention of the Fidel Castro name; something akin to a curse and a fighting word. 

Whatever your take on this may be, this has been quite an adventure for a community that still calls itself “exiled,” though to most inter-generational Cuban-Americans this description of being exiled may seem a bit out of touch with their daily lives. Never mind that to most Cuban-Americans, Miami is home.  Never mind that Cuba is just a side-note to their family's history.  Never mind that as of the writing of this essay, it's been almost 55 years in the making, with no end in sight or rapproachment.  

That seems to be the premise of Cristina Garcia's King of Cuba, a new addition to an already impressive body of work. This is her sixth book.  Her first book in 1993, Dreaming in Cuba, though a powerful first book, was a typical Latin-American novel of magical realism.  The plot followed the same slumbering feel of magic, potents, and, yes, dreams. Garcia was still seen Cuba and the past through sepia-toned eyes, like I used to do myself. Her words, her sentences, her characters all had an aesthetic quality that was tonal, musical to the ear, dream-like in its unreality. 

In this new work of fiction, King of Cuba, Garcia seems to start poking through the holes of sentimentality and nostalgia and, for once, sit back and have a last laugh at that strange island still immersed in so much lore and to which many still talk as if it were a paradise of the bluest seas, the greenish mountains, and the most idyllic childhood dreams.

King of Cuba is above all else a funny book, taking as parody two old men representative of two political types: (Goyo, the octogenerian living in Miami), and a dictator by the name of El Comandante, (Fidel Castro). El Comandante has resigned from his position as dictator due to some unspecified illness and in his stead, his brother Fernando (Raul Castro), has taken on the hold of power, albeit a bit forced. Fernando is not cut out for the job, as El Comandante keeps reminding himself and those he surround himself with. Fernando is more into the perks of capitalism such as Rolex watches than he is about communism. He is portrayed as a failed opportunist, if anything.

Goyo spends his days in his condo on Key Biscayne reading a blog about the dictator's every move, hijodeputa.com. Written by Cuban paid informants within El Comandante's inner circle, it monitors El Comandante's every heartbeat, every bowel movement, every breath he takes. Through the website, Goyo is able to live in a virtual-like, voyeuristic reality in El Comandante's minute-to-minute existence. Goyo's wife of many years, Luisa, has recently passed away and Goyo spends his days listening to boleros by his wife's headstone and bringing her violets, her favorite flowers. He has two children, a woman more concerned with her body weight than Cuba and another son, Goyito, now in his 60's, described as a drug addict, prone to paranoia, most of the time in jail. In other words, Goyito is a failure and everything that Goyo did not want in a son.

Goyo, of course, has a much younger mistress, a bank associate named Vilma Espin. Vilma Espin, of course, was Raul Castro's wife until her death in 2007. She was a staunch communist until her death.

Goyo's main objective at this point in his life is to outlive El Comandante long enough to enjoy the sweet ironies of history. As he muses when El comandante kicks the bucket, “the oldest exiles, now barely distinguishable from the dead, would miraculously spring back to life for one last fiesta with the news. When that hijo de puta kicked the bucket, everyone would be partying like it was 1959.” Amen to that statement. That's what many of the older generations of Cubans expect that would happen, a backward glance at 1959 in all its splendid 35 mm Technicolor.

As it is to be expected, both Goyo and El Comandante are old, senile, decrepit, but still unwavering in their commitment to the reality of their existence, or their dreams. Both share a deep-seated hatred for what the other represents and in this ideological battle, there is no compromise.

But Goyo has a plan to liberate the country of his birth and leave something for history. El Comandante is planning a trip to speak at the United Nations. Goyo has concocted a scheme to kill El Comandante at point blank during his speech. Though crazy and implying his own death, what makes this worth it is what he hopes will be inscribed on his tombstone is “Here Lies a Cuban Hero.” By killing the Devil that has divided families and destroyed his country, he will do what no one has been able to do in more than 50 years.

However preposterous, Goyo plans this with meticulous care up until the minute they each see the other face-to-face, at long last. After so many decades, after so many tears and separations and deaths, it will all come down to a few seconds and if the plan doesn't fail, what then? Though his plan is writ to fail, if it doesn't fail and Goyo will go down in history as the true hero in this war of ideals, always with the expectancy that “everyone would be partying like it was 1959.” What greater accomplishment, indeed? 

 It can't fail. Will it fail?

20 January, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Not sure if this ever happens to you but sometimes I buy books I do not read until years later, much later. This doesn't often happens, for eventually I read all the books I buy. But a strange thing happened with this book I am about to talk about, Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos, a book I bought more than 15 years ago and for one reason or another I simply just forgot I had it. About a week ago, looking for some post-Christmas reading, I found that book-- a precious nugget of a book. To my surprise, it was even autographed by the author himself, Oscar Hijuelos, who died a few months ago of a stroke in 2013.

Mr. Ives' Christmas is a modern-day Dickensian little tome of a book. Of about 250 pages only, it distills the life of a man named Ives, a foundling adopted by an Irish man. Of dubious ethnicity, Mr. Ives marries and has two children, a girl and a boy. His life is always interpreted through the prism of religiosity. Mr. Ives, you see, is a deeply religious catholic man who, at times, doubts his own passionate beliefs. In fact, he's smart enough to notice the accidental tragedies that befall people and is intellectually sophisticated to ask the “why's.” He is privy to senseless, tragic accidents that seem to follow him for most of his life.

While still dating the woman he will marry, Annie, early in the book, he witnesses the death of a lady who accidentally falls through her apartment window and onto the pavement, the impact killing her immediately. He himself almost drowns as a youth. The only thing he can extract from both experiences is a sense of sheer horror and desperation. There are no parting clouds, music or angels coming out to greet you at heaven's door. Mr. Ives meets many people who seem to have experienced tragedy first-hand, such as a co-worker who was also a concentration camp survivor and who has never been able to forget the children she saw go to the gas chambers every day, often with flowers in their hands.

But nothing is about to prepare Mr. Ives for what life has in store for him.

From as long as he could remember, Mr. Ives' only boy, Robert, has had a proclivity for the religious way of life. Eventually, Robert tells his dad he wants to join the Dominican order, a decision that at first takes Mr. Ives by surprise but a decision by his son he learns to accept. One day in 1967, Robert is senselessly murdered by a Daniel Gomez, a troubled Puerto Rican teenager, right on the streets near a church. Of course, like the random violence in our streets, there is no logic or reason for the murder. Having lost his only son, on the verge of losing his own faith, and unable to come to grips with the reality of a personal tragedy, Mr. Ives tries to live his life the best way he can. He is not the type of man to harbor bitterness or hatred in his heart, something that sets him apart from the characters, including his wife and his long-time best Cuban friend, Luis Ramirez.

Mr. Ives is given the chance to avenge his son's senseless murder by an Irish friend from the neighborhood, but Mr. Ives declines to take justice into his own hands. For the murder, the youth spends three years in a juvenile detention center, and, upon his release, now an adult, he goes on to commit another murder, for which he is charged with second degree manslaughter and for which he is given a twenty-two years sentence. Almost a tormented soul, Mr. Ives realizes that he could have prevented this second murder at the hands of this troubled youth if, three years before, he had taken his neighbor's deal and pay a hit-man to take the law into his own hand.

Mr. Ives, wavering between faith and doubt, one day has a religious epiphany after being prone to an accident inside an elevator. He will never ever rationally be able to explain the religious experience, enough to say that it seemed as if transcendence went beyond the simple rituals of his catholic faith, a faith he never truly gives up on.

“Then, not knowing whether to shout from ecstasy or fear, he looked up and saw the sun, glowing red and many times its normal size, looming over the avenue, a pink and then flaring yellow corona bursting from it. And then, in all directions the very sky filled with four rushing, swirling winds, each defined by a different-colored powder like strange Asian spices: one was cardinal red, one the color of saffron, another gray like mothwing, the last a brilliant violet, and these came from four directions, spinning like a great pinwheel over Madison Avenu and Forty-first Street.”

It's a religious mysticism he's never able to explain, but that each character also experience in their own particular ways.

Way into the 1990's and decades after his son's murder, Mr. Ives finds visits the man who murdered his son in 1967. The youth, now an adult, married, prone to depression, guilty-ridden and weighing over 300 lbs, apologizes and Mr. Ives forgives him. In fact, it is Mr. Ives' sudden benevolence towards him that makes all the difference to his felon.

This is a book that jumps around throughout the decades. It encapsules a New York City long gone as well as a microcosm of a world we're all too familiar with: violence, post-modernity, chaos, you name it. Storylines and character development move in and out with the ease that only a master story-teller can accomplish.

Like most of Hijuelos's other novel, this books is a rich tapestry of music, life and changing times. It is a melting pot of ideas, events, and about living life by faith even under tremendous doubts. I suppose it is the Job story rehashed to modern times. At base is the question: why do bad things happen to good people? More importantly: how can people keep a sense of faith in a world seemingly at odds with human aspiration. At a much deeper level, this is also the story of a man coming to grips with a faith wanting in explanations as to why bad things happen to good people. It is like the atheist who still goes to church in order to enjoy either the ritual, the camaderie, or the music.

The book ends with Mr. Ives having a discussion about why one's religious feelings are truer than what we find in life. It is just because they are so personal, so subjective and, ultimately, indescribable, that they take on a wider meaning. Mr. Ives feels that despite personal evidende to the contrary, there is a form of life after death. He knows that there is a god somewhere, out there, or within. It is something that he just knows, though he, like the other characters in this book, cannot put this into words. It's a matter of faith: you either have it or you don't.

I have given a very quick review of this book. There is more, much more in here to read and enjoy. I found myself agreeing more than disagreeing with the trials and tribulations of Mr. Ives and his family.  

09 January, 2014

EXCERPT from introduction to Day's Night (poems) by Jorge Reyes

Day's Night and other poems

Product Details

Paperback: 82 pages

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First Edition edition (January 3, 2014)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 148121599X

ISBN-13: 978-1481215992

Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.2 inches

Who wrote these poems?

Once upon a time, I fell in love with a stranger. It was at a now-defunct local club in Miami called Pump, the place where these poems were born. I was't planning on going, but a friend of mine had asked me to and even though at the last minute she cancelled on me, I went by myself. Even now years later, often, I close my eyes and still see myself at that club dancing to that trance music I love so much; music that awakens my soul to living. The atmosphere that early morning hour at the club was very intense, edgy, raw; the music had an intense, hard-pounding beat; bacchanalian music, pagan in nature, jam-packed with men and women defying the early morning hours of South Beach. Unbeknown to me as I was dancing someone was observing me intensily. Suddenly, this stranger pulled me by the arm, looked me over and asked, Where have you been all these years? I smiled, laughed nervously. And slowly, oh, so slowly, I opened my eyes and saw a face I’ll never forget. Thank you, I said. We chatted. We danced a bit. We went home….

What a night and what a day that followed! What beautiful days and nights! Days fused into weeks filled with passion. For the first time, ever, passions were awakened in me unlike anything I’d felt before. It seemed too good to last, and it was.

Day’sNight is a collection of poems about those days; of crying alone for no good reason; of feeling alone though surrounded by many people; of being alone in the world, let's face it, is a lonely place. Mostly, these poems are about the mental horror and depression I lived through after the end of a relationship I had idealized like the naïve person I used to be. Written many years ago, these poems today still have the power to unrattle me.

Day’s Night, a fitting title taken right out from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, is a collection of poetry loosely connected to love’s manifold effects.

These poems, however, deal with a troubled mind, mine, lost to itself. Only then are these poems tangentially related to love; I was a troubled man lost to himself; writing about a world in chaos and beyond my own comprehension. (I'd like to think that not all relationships end like this.) In these pages, you’ll read poems that are dark and experimental, often written in a state of complete dejection.

Love, so closely related to a negation, is known for its capacity to trigger the very best in you, or its direst opposite. Love is, after all, a tug of contradictions; an ideal pit against its very antithesis, reality, and we all know that there is nothing loving about reality; reality simply is. And in such war, one side wins, the other side loses. Embroiled in this unexpected battle, all I was able to do was write—just write. Day’s Night became my confessional.

These are my day’s nights. What started as an inconsequential passion of self-destruction, transformed me forever. Who would have known?