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.