Oscar Hijuelos (August 24, 1951 – October 12, 2013) represents a new generation of Cuban American writers. His Latino roots enrich his chronicles of the immigrant experience. Latino writers often face quandaries when choosing the language for their literary expression (Spanish or English), when committing to traditions of their descendants, and when chronicling immigrant life in their new world. Hijuelos balances the sensitivities of the American reader and the expectations of the Latino by presenting characters who, removed from the security of their Cuban homeland, are tossed into the diversity and adversity of big-city life; they survive and still bring grace to their daily existence. Hijuelos’s two shorter novels, Our House in the Last World, his autobiographical debut, and Mr. Ives’ Christmas, an exploration of spirituality, provide balance to his long works. Proud of his heritage, yet conscious of the limited parameters of his youth, the author places his characters in situations that pronounce their independence but accept their assimilation into a new culture.
Our House in the Last World
Our House in the Last World explores the questions of identity and perspective through the travails of the Santinio family, who are seeking fortune by moving from Cuba to New York City. The father, Alejo, expects the younger son, Héctor, to live a macho existence and to be “Cuban,” while his mother, Mercedes, smothers him with her anxieties and loses her capability to develop her personality. Hijuelos offers two views of innocence: that of the wonder and confusion of a family facing a new life in an unknown world, and that of their children’s bewilderment in a harsh environment.
The novel begins in the ticket office of a film house in Holguín, Cuba. Mercedes, twenty-seven, almost past the age of marriage, meets Alejo, who woos her, marries her, and moves her to New York, where they share an apartment with other Cubans who come and go. Some attain status and wealth, while the Santinios remain impoverished. Alejo becomes a sot, a gluttonous man who allows his sister to wage a harsh campaign against his wife. Mercedes transfers the memory of her father onto Alejo, and it is only after Alejo’s death near the end of the novel that she is free to realize her dreams as her own.
The older son, Horatio, epitomizes the image of the man he thinks his mother demands. A womanizer and philanderer, he finally adopts a military lifestyle as an escape from fear of failure. Héctor contracts a near-fatal disease while on holiday in Cuba, and the months of hospitalization that follow embitter him toward the culture of his homeland and all things Cuban. Mercedes becomes unbearably overprotective, and his anxieties prevent him from reacting to the drunken excesses of his father and the hysteria of his mother. Castro has taken over Cuba during this time, and Mercedes and Alejo are disengaged from the lost world of their youth; New York will hold them until death.
Hijuelos embraces these characters with pure affection and gentleness, as he allows the relatives to flow through the Santinios’ life. He describes their downslide from hope to resignation, from effort to insanity, and from love to harassment. Love does not conquer all, but it does provide a basis for life. The Santinios are a tribute to perseverance.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Oscar Hijuelos’s life in the advertising agency had little to do with his passion for writing. When he first began thinking of the story that would become The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, he knew that an uncle and an elevator operator would be his models. The uncle, a musician with Xavier Cougat during the 1930’s, and a building superintendent, patterned after an elevator operator and musician, merge to become Cesar Castillo, the Mambo King. Cesar’s brother, Néstor, laconic, retrospective, lamenting the loss of a Latina lover he left behind in Cuba, writes a song in her memory that draws the attention of Desi Arnaz, who will change their life.
As the book opens, Cesar rots with his half-empty whiskey glass tipped at the television beaming old reruns; he seeks the I Love Lucy spot featuring him and Néstor as the Mambo Kings. Néstor has tragically died. Cesar pathetically reveals his aging process, the cirrhosis, the loss of flamboyant times. Cesar’s old, scratchy records, black, brittle, and warped, resurrect his music stardom. He laments his brother’s death by leafing through fading pictures.
In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Hijuelos presents pre-Castro Cubans, who, after World War II, streamed in torrents to New York, their experiences creating a historical perspective for future Third World immigration. All communities may strive for the American Dream, but in Latino quarters, music, the mainstream of a culture, sought to free the oppressed. The Castro brothers become, for a moment, cultural icons with their appearance on I Love Lucy. The fame short-lived, Cesar comforts his ego with debauchery, and Néstor dies ungracefully and suddenly. Ironically named, the Hotel Splendour is where Cesar commits suicide—in Cuban culture, a respectable ending to life. Latino culture encourages the machismo of men such as Cesar, and Hijuelos may be asking his countrymen to review that attitude.
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien again paints Hijuelos’s theme of immigrant life in America, this time on the canvas of a small rural town. Family traditions pass down, hopes spring eternal, and sadness and attempts to assimilate fade as the book’s characters meet disappointment and victories to varying degrees. Nelson O’Brien leaves Ireland, sister in tow, for the better life promised in America. Weakened by the journey and her general frailty, the sister dies, leaving Nelson to wander aimlessly, until he retreats to Cuba to take pictures of the Spanish-American War. He meets the sixteen-year-old Mariela Montez and courts her every Sunday for seven weeks. Seducing her with stories of his Pennsylvania farm and with her first sexual experiences, Nelson persuades her to marry and move to the farm, offering a telescope as a token of their future.
The Montez O’Brien household is fertile, and fourteen magnetic sisters charge the home with a feminine aura. Finally, the lone son, Emilio, is born. Mostly told through the older daughter’s eyes, the story portrays the ferocity of Nelson’s ambition and character through the overbearing feminine mystique that surrounds his life, his decisions, and his focus on the future. Emilio, on the other hand, becomes a gentle soul who adores and is adored by his sisters. The sisters grow, many without mates, into expected positions in the world—entertainers, homekeepers, expectant mothers, recluses, gluttons—carrying the name and bravado of their father with them. Emilio attracts women and suffers the vanity of his charm and good looks, eventually becoming an actor in B-films. His drunken tendencies and a sordid affair with a pregnant teen turn his life sour. Scandalized, he lies in reclusiveness until finding his soulmate in an improbable café in an Alaskan fishing village. She dies before the novel’s end, breaking Emilio’s heart but allowing the sisters to provide him with solace. Hijuelos finishes the novel succinctly, with both realized tragedies and continuing dreams for the future.
Mr. Ives’ Christmas
Hijuelos somberly presents Mr. Ives, a character unlike the romanticized Cesar, the macho Mambo King. Mr. Edward Ives sensitively and sanely goes through his life with no malice toward fellow man or woman. He seeks those rewards he has become accustomed to earning, but one date, Christmas Eve, consistently seems to interfere with his life. A widowed print maker visits Ives on Christmas Eve when he is an orphaned child and, a few Christmases later, adopts him. His adoptive father idyllically rears the dark-skinned child, inspires him to pursue his love for drawing, and eventually guides him to the Arts Student League, where he meets, on Christmas Eve, his future wife.
The picture-postcard family image is grotesquely distorted years later when, on Christmas Eve, the Iveses’ seventeen-year-old son is gunned down as he leaves church choir practice. A fourteen-year-old Puerto Rican gunman kills the boy for ten dollars. Mr. Ives devotes his life to obsessive attempts to rehabilitate the murderer.
Symbolically, Mr. Ives’s favorite book is a signed copy of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). Hijuelos strongly relies on this book to link the two tales. The author emulates Dickens’s populous canvases and uses Dickens’s love of coincidence and contrivance as a metaphor for God’s mysterious workings. The temperance of Mr. Ives engenders his longing for grace, a gift for contemplation, and a world curiosity. Hijuelos also draws heavily on images from his New York neighborhood, his coterie of friends, and the milieu of gangs, muggers, and drug addicts at the end of his street. Mr. Ives’ Christmas speaks of faith—a faith that mysteriously probes emotions, tested by death and the opportunity of forgiveness.
Empress of the Splendid Season
In Empress of the Splendid Season, Lydia Espana is banished from her Cuban home by her father, a small-town alcalde, because she overstayed her allowed time at a dance with a young man. Disheartened, she makes her way to New York and in time marries and gains employment as a cleaning lady. In near poverty, she and her chronically ill husband, a waiter, attempt to maintain respectability and keep food on the table for their two children. Lydia resorts to fantasy as a coping mechanism, envisioning herself as the “Empress of the Splendid Season,” a poetic term of endearment used by her husband during the early days of their romance. Hijuelos describes Lydia’s passage from privileged girlhood to a widowed old age through her relationships with family, friends, and employers. A wealthy employer sends her son to a prestigious university.He becomes a successful psychologist but is unhappy and feels disconnected from the world. Lydia’s daughter grows into a rebellious young woman who later marries an Anglo and moves to the suburbs. She chooses to rear Lydia’s grandchildren far from her Cuban roots. Hijuelos again digs beneath the core of tenement life, bringing a magical mystique into his characters’ lives through rich text and powerful prose.
A Simple Habana Melody: From When the World Was Good
This 2002 novel begins in 1947, as Israel Levis returns by ship from Spain to his native Cuba. A popular musician best known for “Rosas Puras,” a rumba hit that he wrote in 1928, Levis is only fifty-seven, but internment for fourteen months in Buchenwald concentration camp has rendered him a frail old man. Most of the novel consists of Levis’s melancholic recollections of happier times in Havana and Paris.
Levis was a creative force within the vibrant Cuban culture of the 1920’s. Though he also composed operas, symphonies, and ballets, he became best known for a song he wrote in a few hours for the singer Rita Valladares; in “Rosas Puras,” he expresses unfulfilled longing for a beautiful woman whom he could never bring himself to woo, though she was attracted to him. A devout Catholic dominated by his widowed mother, the fleshy Levis channels strong sexual urges into visits to brothels and into his music. He also suppresses erotic interest in other men. After Manny Cortez, his friend and librettist, is assassinated by agents of dictator Gerardo Machado, Levis leaves for Paris, hoping to be closer to Valladares, who is now performing there.
During the 1930’s, a vogue for things “tropical” helps make Levis the toast of Europe. He tours widely with his own orchestra, making his home in a luxury hotel in Paris. Valladares stars in the zarzuela that Levis creates out of “Rosas Puras,” but, while continuing to pine for her, he cannot allow himself to express with her the vigorous sensuality that he enjoys with hired women. Indifferent to politics, Levis immerses himself in music and the libertine pleasures of Paris. He relishes his renown and friendships with other artists, including Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and Gary Cooper.
By the time that Germany conquers France in 1940, most other foreigners have left. Levis remains, however, writing and performing, even when Sarah Rubinstein, a Jew who has become his lover, is forced to flee. Because of Levis’s association with Sarah and because his own name sounds Jewish, the Gestapo classifies him as a Jew and forces him to submit to humiliating restrictions. In 1943, he is transported to Buchenwald. Except to note that scraps of food slipped to Levis as reward for occasional command performances probably kept him alive, Hijuelos leaves it to the reader to imagine details of life and death in the camp.
Most of A Simple Habana Melody is thus an ailing older man’s ruminations over his vanished prime. For Levis, Havana in the 1920’s and Paris in the 1930’s represented moments “when the world was good”—as the novel’s full title suggests. No longer able to compose or to performsexually, the Levis who repatriates to Cuba has lost two elements essential to his personal identity, religious faith and joie de vivre. What most torments him now, awaiting death, is realizing his naïveté in believing that goodness prevails over evil. The world is more complex than the simple Habana melody that defined the life of Israel Levis.
Fiction • Our House in the Last World, 1983; The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, 1989; The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien, 1993; Mr. Ives’ Christmas, 1995; Empress of the Splendid Season, 1999; A Simple Habana Melody: From When the World Was Good, 2002.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.