Friday, July 30, 2010

The Other Side of the Story

If you have read the 1989 Oscar Hijuelos novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” you will remember the Castillo brothers – band leader Cesar and his ill-fated brother Nestor. You may even remember the love song Nestor wrote in memory of his long lost love in Cuba - “Beautiful Maria of My Soul”. That's the title of Hijuelos's newest novel, in which he tells the story of the woman who inspired the love song.

Maria Garcia y Cifuentes is a beautiful but illiterate country girl (a guajira) who comes to Havana and quickly learns to use her looks to her advantage as a dancer in a second rate Havana nightclub. There she meets Ignacio, a gangster who showers her with gifts, clothes and a nice apartment. But she also meets the soulful trumpeter Nestor, with whom she has a passionate love affair described in great detail by Hijuelos. Let's just say that Nestor's instrument is prodigious even when he's not playing the trumpet. But what's a poor girl to do? Maria opts for security over passion and heartbroken Nestor heads for New York, where his adventures (including a memorable appearance on "I Love Lucy") are picked up in “Mambo Kings”.

The story is periodically interrupted by reminiscences by the sixty-something Maria, now living in Miami with her grown daughter (an immigrant's dream come true – she's a doctor), looking back over her personal story as well as the turbulent history of Cuba. Images of the poverty and luxury that existed side by side in the pre-Castro Havana are especially powerful, and the description of the Cuban community in Miami is vivid.

Hijuelos is a great storyteller, and although he was born in the US his affection for Cuba and her people is always apparent. Could there ever really be a woman as universally desirable and passionate as Maria? That seemed a little like a fairy tale (a very male fairy tale), but I enjoyed my return visit to these memorable characters.
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