The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is the second novel by Oscar Hijuelos, a novelist born in New York of Cuban parents. As he did in his first novel, Our House in the Last World (1983), Hijuelos here explores the experience of a family that begins in one world, Cuba, and continues with subsequent generations in another, the United States. In both novels, the characters who dominate the narrative are the Cuban immigrants, but the perspective is that of the children born in the United States.
Hijuelos has been the recipient of numerous prestigious grants to support his work, including awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His stature as a serious novelist is confirmed in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a work that reconstructs the popular culture of a particular era and, in a less specific way, evokes the anguish and pain of human existence. While this novel gives some attention to the predicament of the Cuban immigrant in New York, it deals much more with what it means to be a man. It is also a novel about being female, for it reveals much about the way men relate to women and see themselves anchored in their existence by their sexual relationships.
A measure of Hijuelos’ novelistic skill is his remarkable success in maintaining an elegant, refined narrative tone while telling a story replete with scatological sexual details. The life’ of Cesar Castillo is documented by parallel histories of his professional life as the leader of a Cuban rumba-mambo orchestra in New York City and of his sexual relationships with a multitude of women. The very detailed presentation of the sensuous, slightly sordid milieu of the 1950’s Latin music scene is intermingled with the portrayal of Cesar as a strutting peacock obsessed with his uncanny gift for pleasing women with his enormous penis.
Because the narrative is structured through two obsessions—the sensuous music and the indefatigable phallus—it seems at every moment in danger of becoming trite, simplistic, or even pornographic. Hijuelos saves his story through some very wise choices. One might expect the novel to become the portrayal of a bandleader haunted by his limited success in the music business. This character, however, is content playing music, even when he finally has to support himself working as the superintendent of an apartment building. In like fashion, the narrative might have been a pathetic history of a man who loses the sexual potency on which he has based his own value in the world. Instead, it is a sensitive portrayal of a man who accepts his extraordinary prowess as simply a fact of life and recognizes that the source of his disillusionment and despair is the irrevocable passage of time. Cesar discovers that human existence is fragile and transitory, and that it is recoverable only through memory.
The narrative represents Cesar’s act of remembering his life, as he spends the last night of his life in 1980 in the Hotel Splendour, a seedy New York flophouse that in its better days was Cesar’s favorite spot for entertaining Vanna Vane—Miss Mambo of June, 1954—and dozens of other beautiful women. Cesar listens to his record album from 1956, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and reconstructs his life of music and sex.
The narrator of the novel, however, is not Cesar but Eugenio Castillo, the son of his brother Nestor. Eugenio’s prologue to the narrative is a first-person testimony in which he introduces the event that dominates the novel, the appearance of Cesar and Nestor as Ricky Ricardo’s cousins, Manny and Alfonso, in an episode of “I Love Lucy.” The epilogue, another first-person account, is Eugenio’s narrative of his visit to Hollywood after Cesar’s death to talk to Desi Arnaz about his uncle and his father. Between the prologue and the epilogue, the text of remembrance is told by Eugenio as an omniscient narrator who...
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