The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love Essay - Critical Essays

Oscar Hijuelos

Critical Evaluation

A native New Yorker of Cuban parentage, Oscar Hijuelos graduated from the City College of New York. His first novel, Our House in the Last World, was published in 1983. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, winner of a 1990 Pulitzer Prize, became a major motion picture. The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien appeared in 1993. The three novels illustrate immigrant life in the United States, with remembrance and nostalgia serving as sources of narrative imagination.

The family saga of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is narrated in the first and third person, shifting from one character’s story to the next, from one recollection to another, moving back and forth in time, with flashbacks within flashbacks, and foreshadowing the future. The disjointed narrative, with extensive footnotes and inventory-like descriptions, enlivened with monologues and dialogues, finds a focus in the musical career and romantic adventures of Cesar and Nestor Castillo, the Mambo Kings.

The novel is divided into five sections; the first and last, the shortest and untitled, are narrated by Eugenio, who provides his own memories of events. The second and third sections, entitled “Side A” and “Side B,” respectively, refer in their subtitles to a night in 1980, at the Hotel Splendour, where Cesar spends his last hours, listening to the 1956 record album “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” The fourth section, “Toward the End, While Listening to the Wistful ’Beautiful María of My Soul,’” includes a Spanish version of the song, handwritten by Cesar, and found next to him after his death.

Hijuelos presents the 1930’s and 1940’s music scene in Cuba, and then captures the times and spirit of the 1940’s and 1950’s in New York, when Latin music influenced American jazz and dancing required expertise in the arts of the mambo, rumba, and cha-cha. The “cu-bop” exemplified the crosscultural fusion of the Afro-Cuban music and hot bebop Harlem jazz. Sociocultural dualism is...

(The entire section is 835 words.)