The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love Analysis

Oscar Hijuelos

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Hotel Splendour

Hotel Splendour. Flophouse on New York City’s 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in which Cesar Castillo drinks himself to death, chosen for that purpose so that he can recollect much happier times, when it was a regular venue for fervent bouts of love-making with Vanna Vane. The name is ironically symbolic: for Cesar (unlike Nestor) New York is—at least to begin with—all splendor: a prolific well of sexual and other delights that shows no indication of running dry until Nestor’s death.

*Las Piñas

*Las Piñas. Village in Cuba’s Oriente Province that is near the farm on which the Castillo brothers are born and raised. Three miles from town, the farm is approached by a dirt road which runs alongside the river. It is in the “concert hall” of the local sugar-mill that Cesar first encounters the music that shapes his life and soul and makes contact with bandleader Ernesto Lecuona. Unlike Nestor, the young Cesar is harshly treated by his father, subsequently remembering the farm primarily as a place where he suffered frequent undeserved beatings.

La Salle Street tenement

La Salle Street tenement. Six-story tenement building west of 124th Street that becomes the Castillo brothers’ New York residence. Their fourth-floor apartment is initially rented by Pablo, the cousin with whom they lodge on first arriving in New York, but it becomes theirs when Pablo moves his family to Queens. Following Nestor’s death, when Cesar joins the merchant marines, it becomes the home of Delores, her children, and her second husband; after his return, Cesar obtains the job of building superintendent, with his own apartment on a lower floor and a workroom...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Recent Cuban History
After Cuba gained its independence from Spain at the turn of the century, the Cuban government was marred...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is told from two points of view. The first is that of Eugenio, who tells of...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Hijuelos informs readers from the very first page that they will have to work to understand his novel. The novel's epigraph, a relevant...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Discussions of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love can focus on both topical issues in American life and on artistic form. One possible...

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Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1990, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was the first time that award was given to a Latino...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1950s: Cuba is a popular vacation resort for American tourists, who enjoy the benefits of the strong U.S. dollar and a foreign...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Explore the life and career of one of the musicians mentioned in the book, such as Celia Cruz, Pérez Prado, Tito Rodriguez or Machito, and...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love has deep roots in early twentieth-century American novels of immigrant experience, such as Upton...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is Oscar Hijuelos's second novel, and it continues the exploration of Cuban American experience...

(The entire section is 223 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A film version of the novel, titled The Mambo Kings, saw its theatrical release in 1992. Written by Cynthia Cidre and directed by Arne...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

This novel was adapted to a movie in 1992, starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas as the Castillo brothers. It was directed by Arne...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Oscar Hijuelos’s first novel, Our House in the Last World (1982), concerns a New Yorker who is haunted by the stories his parents...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Foster, David William, comp. Handbook of Latin American Literature. 2d ed. New York: Garland, 1992. The section on Cuban Americans discusses Hijuelos’ novel as a text inspired and guided by music, which becomes “the center of the narrative,” recalling the influential times in Latin music. Considers the dynamics of the exile experience as a major aspect of the work.

Kanellos, Nicolás. “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” Review of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos. The Americas Review 18 (Spring, 1990): 113-114. Praises Hijuelos as an intellectual whose research-based novel is a...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Birkerts, Sven, “The Haunted House,” in the New Republic, March 22, 1993, pp. 38–41.


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