This short book was, in some sense, a welcome transition from Tournament of Books selections and coverage. First published in 1987, the novel won award for Spanish language novels but was not translated into English until 2009, after the novel had been rediscovered and heavily praised in Europe. This is a bold, original novel from a troubled author. Only two of his novels survived his suicide, this one and “El Juego de la Viola”. The others he destroyed.
The scant information I have about the author suggests that this novel is somewhat autobiographical. Guillermo Rosales was born and grew up in Cuba. He was, apparently, initially sympathetic to the revolution, but later grew disenchanted with it and fled the totalitarian state, ending up in Miami. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent a considerable part of the rest of his life in halfway houses.
Guillermo’s alter ego, William Figueras, narrates the story. William describes in brief simple terms his love of literature, his first novel, and the resulting repression by the Cuban government. The stress of failure drives him insane. The novel is bleakly comic such as when he describes his arrival in America:
There were some relatives waiting for me . . . They thought a future winner was coming, a future businessman, a future playboy, a future family man who would have a future house full of kids . . . The person who turned up was instead a crazy, nearly toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward that very day because he eyed everyone in the family with suspicion and, instead of hugging and kissing them, insulted them.
The relatives soon rid themselves of William, except for one aunt. She allows him to stay with her for three months:
[U]ntil the day when, at the advice of other friends and relatives, she decided to stick me in the halfway house: the house of human garbage.
“Because you’ll understand that nothing more can be done.”
I understand her.
This sense of hopelessness pervades the novel. William has little to which he can look forward. The halfway house is a terrible place. Jose Manuel Prieto, in the preface, aptly describes it as “Dantean”. There are retarded twins who fight, a man with pus oozing out of his empty eye socket, chronically clogged toilets, an opportunistic manager (Curbelo) who skims profits and skimps on services, and the manager’s predatory lieutenant Arsenio.
[Arsenio]’s square and sweaty torso is slashed through with a scar that goes from his chest to his navel. It’s from being stabbed in prison, five years ago, where he was doing time for stealing. Mr. Curbelo pays him seventy dollars a week. But Arsenio is happy. He has no family, no profession, no life ambitions, and here, in the halfway house, he’s a big fish. For the first time in his life, Arsenio feels fulfilled somewhere.
But the book does not slide into an easy indictment of Cuba or America, halfway houses, Curbelo, or Arsenio. He plumbs the depths of the human condition and pulls up the worst of it. His criticism of Cuba is not merely a stand against totalitarianism, but against how totalitarianism unmasks people for what they are. On one hand, there is the shadow that that follows survivors, a haunting that is reminiscent of Cynthia Ozick’s connected short stories in The Shawl. But William was not first a victim, but an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel’s regime. He bears the scars of complicity.
He shares that shame with a new arrival at the halfway house, Frances. Frances, like William, is not as far gone as the other residents. The two bond in ways reassuring and disconcerting. Like the other subjects of the book, William’s and Frances’s shared shame is no simple thing, but a layered affair. Though we know enough about William by this point to know he could have done something horrible, the first memory they share, besides the revolutionary anthem, is of benign (if not laudable) participation:
”I taught five peasants how to read,” she confesses.
“Oh yeah? Where?”
“In the Sierra Maestra,” she says. “In a place called El Roble.”
“I was around there,” I say. “I was teaching some other peasants in La Plata. Three mountains from there.”
As Trevor puts it over at The Mookse and The Gripes, the novel is “all the more poignant because of” the simple narrative style. In his own excellent review, though, Trevor points out the complexity of the ideas and structure of the novel. While fleshed out in plain prose, the book has a heft belied by the slim page count (which is 121 including a twelve page preface). I highly recommend checking out Trevor’s review (link above) and reading Prieto’s preface, whether prior to reading the novel or after. I do think I found myself more impressed by the examination of humanity itself, rather than the specifically Cuban focus. In other words, as I tried to express before, while the novel does illumine the evils of totalitarianism and the failures of America, the most powerful searchlight is shone on the human condition. The book is timeless and borderless; it is well worth reading.