Pablo Medina’s The Cigar Roller is narrated throughout from the point of view of its protagonist, Amadeo Terra, an old man who lies paralyzed and dying in a Tampa, Florida, nursing home. His experiences in the nursing home intermingle with his memories and flashbacks which gradually reveal his life story. Amadeo, a cigar maker, fled with his family from Cuba to Tampa in the late nineteenth century when he got into trouble with the Spanish authorities. Despite his brief association with the Cuban independence movement, Amadeo is no hero. Instead, he is a self-centered, antiheroic figure who is almost comic except for some of the awful things he has done. Now, after suffering a stroke which leaves him paralyzed from the head downbut apparently suffering no other brain damagehe has had nothing to do for over four years in the nursing home except linger on and contemplate his condition, his vices, his evil deeds, and his missed opportunities.
Amadeo’s main vice is lust, which led him to consort with cabaret dancers and prostitutes, to have an affair with a fourteen-year-old girl, and to abandon his long-suffering wife, Julia, mother of his three sons, for a much younger woman, Amalia, with whom he had a daughter. Amadeo loved Julia and at times seemed to dote on her: She was his helpmate who followed him wherever he went and forgave him for most of the long years of their marriage. Amadeo even found Julia sexually exciting, at least for the first couple of years, but then he got bored with the routine of marriage. As Amadeo told Julia, a man has appetites his wife cannot satisfy, which might say something about the male sex and certainly says something about Amadeo. Amadeo’s occupation as a cigar roller symbolically suggests his most outstanding vice.
Amadeo also had a fondness for food and drink. He recalls times when he consumed six helpings of paella for lunch and two steaks for dinner. It is not surprising that he once weighed three hundred pounds. He also went on drinking binges and came home ill, at which times Julia would revive him by feeding him rice and vaca frita. Amadeo’s other vices included gambling and overspending, but for the most part his vices were the earthy vices of the flesh (as his name Terra suggests). For Amadeo’s sensualist nature, the cigars he made and loved to smoke and savor are again an appropriate symbol. Amadeo’s idea of supreme satisfaction was “to sit in the shade with a bottle of wine, a cigar, and a friend or two.”
Amadeo’s male relationships were mainly with role models or mentors. At the age of twelve Amadeo began learning cigar rolling from Elpidio, a mixed-race Cuban, and he moved in with Elpidio and his wife Lala for two years. Elpidio and the other men in the cigar factory taught Amadeo that it did not matter what else one wascheater, abuser, thug, drunk, or some other lowlifeas long as one was a good cigar roller. This sentiment seems to have stuck with Amadeo. Elpidio also set an example for Amadeo in the realm of appetites: Elpidio shoveled in food, but Amadeo expanded on his teacher’s example, just as he learned to roll better cigars.
Another mentor of Amadeo was Sergio Reinaldo Ramos, nicknamed Chano, a dapper wheeler-dealer who hung out in bodegas but presented himself as a gentleman intellectual. Chano met Amadeo as soon as Amadeo stepped off the boat in Tampa. He set Amadeo up with a low-ranking job in a local cigar factory and moved Amadeo and his family into a rundown house. Julia saw through Chano, but Amadeo accepted him at face value, felt obliged for the favors, and over the years became Chano’s friend and student, imbibing knowledge of literature and philosophy from Chano’s deep conversations over wine and cigars. Later in Amadeo’s life, after Chano died, Chano’s replacement seems to have been Giacobo Bombo, the local Mafia kingpin, with whom Amadeo regularly met and conversed in the Columbia Restaurant.
Amadeo’s ability to absorb higher learning much as he inhaled cigars is rather implausible because he had little schooling and was no great reader, but perhaps his feat is a tribute to male bonding. Amadeo and his friends are all products of the macho male culture. The macho culture places value on surface qualities and appearances, so a little learning could go a long way, and the culture also values knowledge and behavior handed on from man to man. Homosexuals, whom Amadeo hates, do not fit this culture’s definition of machismo, nor do poets (one of Amedeo’s sons is a poet, and so is the novel’s author).
Also typical of the macho culture are outbreaks of anger and violence, which in Amadeo’s case allowed him to commit some terrible acts. The reasons for Amadeo’s behavior are further complicated by his childhood relationship with his abusive father, who...
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