Oscar Hijuelos captures the vibrant, colorful cultural life, and especially the music, of Cuba in the first decades of the twentieth century as well as the even richer artistic life in New York City and Paris in the 1920’s and 1930’s. By painting a portrait of his Cuban composer Israel Levis, Hijuelos actually manages to lay out the major cultural and political forces emerging at the opening of the twentieth century. Levis may be a fictional character, but the world he moves in is as lively as any in fiction and the political forces shaping that world are as real.
The novel begins in 1947, when Levis is returning to Havana (accurately called “Habana” throughout the novel, from the name of the Indian chieftain, Habaquatnex) after recovery from his internment in a concentration camp at the end of World War II, but circles back almost at once to tell his earlier history. Levis was born to a professional family in Habana in 1890; his father, a doctor, dies young, as do three siblings, and Israel and his brother Fernando remain devoted to their mother Doña Conception. Fernando follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a doctor practicing in the city of Santiago de Cuba. Israel, with a musical calling from an early age, becomes a pianist and composer and one of the most famous Cuban musicians of the twentieth century. A Simple Habana Melody is a fictional biography of his life, but it is much more.
In many ways Levis is larger than life. A big man who grows increasingly portly as he finds success, he is also a man with prodigious appetites, for food and drink as well as sex. He becomes a master of Cuban music, writing in many forms (including the zarzuela, a form of Spanish opera), and he finds ways “to express through music Cuba’s emerging national soul.” In the 1920’s, he caps his successes by composing “Rosas Puras” for his friend the singer Rita Valladares and the song becomes the most famous rumba in the world, helps to introduce Cuban music to an international audience, and changes both American and European tastes in music and dance. Levis’s rise in the world is unfortunately shadowed by political turmoil: The tightening grip of the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado in the early 1930’s causes the death of Manny Cortez, Levis’s friend and lyricist, and drives many Cuban artists and musicians into exile, first to New York City—where Cuban music becomes part of the emerging jazz scene in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and where Levis “used jazz voicings in his arrangements of Cuban song, or leavened the jazz with a bit of Cuban melody”—and then to Paris and other cultural capitals of Europe, where Levis’s Cuban melodies gain an even greater following.
Israel Levis lives well in Paris during the 1930’s, growing even larger, riding on the crest of his success, and indulging in his favorite gustatory and sexual pastimes. “Privately lascivious (for he was a habitué of the brothels), publicly righteous, he was at heart a moralistic fellow.” He is almost oblivious to the political tensions around him, however, including the rise of Adolf Hitler, although he finds touring through Germany and Austria with his band uncomfortable. Then he falls in love with Sarah Rubenstein, a French dance teacher who in a few years goes underground and, with her brother Georges, become part of the French Resistance fighting the Nazis. Levis’s story is clearly meant as a tragicomedy, for in the German occupation of Paris in the first years of the 1940’s the Nazis demand that he register as a Jew. He is not Jewish; his name, from his Spanish father, may go back to some ancient Sephardic lineage, but Israel is a devout Cuban Catholic. The authorities will not listen to his story; for them, in their rigid racist thinking, his name is his destiny. A year and a half later, he is forced to put the yellow cloth star on his clothing like Jews in Paris (although, unlike them, he is also invited to play for the occupation forces), and in 1943 he is shipped by train to a concentration camp. The commandant of the Paris occupation, who appreciates Levis’s...
(The entire section is 1672 words.)