Oscar Hijuelos

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Like Mexican American writers Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodriguez, and Gary Soto, Oscar Hijuelos emerged at an opportune moment, when the burgeoning Latino population had also piqued an interest in books by Latino authors. Three of his first six books are classic American immigration narratives, though his characters hail from Cuba instead of Russia, Italy, or Norway. Another, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien (1993), follows the lives of a family created by a mother from Cuba and a father from Ireland. Though Edward Ives, in Mr. Ives’ Christmas (1995), is not explicitly Cuban, he is an orphan foundling whose origins might be almost anything, and he becomes a Hispanophile who chooses to live in a New York neighborhood populated by Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Israel Levis, of A Simple Habana Melody, is not Cuban American but rather a Cuban who expatriates for more than a decade in Paris.

In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, as Cesar Castillo, green from Havana, walks about the streets of 1949 New York, he is unnerved by its polyglot clatter—“a constant ruido—a noise—the whirling, garbled English language, spoken in Jewish, Irish, German, Polish, Italian, Spanish accents, complicated and unmelodic to his ear.” The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, like Our House in the Last World and Empress of the Splendid Season (1999), focuses on the community of first-and second-generation Cubans living in New York in the decades after World War II. An Irish landlady named Shannon is a minor exception, but Bernardito Mandelbaum, an American Jew who, like Edward Ives, embraces Cuban culture in spirit, is not. The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien expands the story into another generation that ceases to speak Spanish and whose ancestral homeland is Ireland as well as Cuba.

A Few Moments of Earthly Happiness, Hijuelos’s working title for his third book, might apply as well to all of his fiction, whose hapless, lonely characters are driven by desire and haunted by the realization that life is brief and satisfaction even briefer. The engine of the plot is sometimes sexual desire, as in the obsessive philandering graphically detailed in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and A Simple Habana Melody. But the driving force of Hijuelos’s fiction is always a longing for something either unattainable or impermanent. Witness Lydia España’s disappointment in the working-class existence into which she, a child of Cuban privilege, has fallen in Empress of the Splendid Season.

In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and A Simple Habana Melody, desire is largely male, centered in the large, insistent sexual endowments of the novels’ main characters. Hijuelos does create sympathy for the thwarted longings of Delores Fuentes, the bookish woman Nestor marries merely as a surrogate for his missing María. But the elusive singer Rita Valladares is mostly a foil to illustrate Israel Levis’s erotic inhibitions. As if to appease critics who still complained of his failure to create a strong and sympathetic female character, Hijuelos offered in The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien a world populated and shaped mostly by women. Yet much of the novel is dominated by Emilio Montez O’Brien, another obsessive womanizer. To find a work by Hijuelos that matches the machismo of the others with a convincing representation of feminine sensibilities, a reader would have to turn to the life of a wistful cleaning lady portrayed in Empress of the Splendid Season.

In Our House in the Last World , Alejo Santinio courts his future wife Mercedes at the Neptuna Movie Theater, where she works...

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as the ticket girl, but the radiant images on the local screen in Holguín, Cuba, do not prepare them for the drabness and drudgery of the life they encounter in the United States.The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love continues Hijuelos’s study in unfulfilled desire—not merely Cesar’s grotesque sexual adventuring but also the unrequited love that Nestor translates into the Mambo Kings’ most enduring creation, the haunting song that the Castillo brothers perform for Desi Arnaz during their enchanted visit to his television program. Called “Beautiful María of My Soul,” it is an aching evocation of the ravishing woman who never ceases to haunt the amorous young Nestor, years after she abruptly and mysteriously abandoned him in Cuba. Similarly, “Rosas Puras,” a simple Habana melody, immortalizes Israel Levis’s impeded desire for Rita Valladares. Like the Shakespeare sonnets that vow to outlive the physical beauty of the poet’s beloved, musical compositions in Hijuelos’s fiction serve both as a monument to mutability and frustration and a tribute to the redemptive might of art.

For all the hardships that their characters endure, most of Hijuelos’s novels offer the possibility of transcendent grace through a brief brush with celebrity. After he leaves Cuba, Alejo Santinio encounters nothing but disappointment and failure. His single luminous moment occurs in 1961, with the unexpected visit of Nikita Khrushchev to the hotel kitchen where Alejo toils. Years later, the humble Cuban immigrant lives on, in triumph, in the glossy photograph that captures him beside the famous Russian. Similarly, a broadcast tape beatifies Cesar and Nestor Castillo during the single moment that denies the frustration and banality of their lives, their appearance on network television with the glamorous Desi Arnaz. Photographs and films perpetuate Emilio Montez O’Brien’s brief career as a movie star, a buddy of the charismatic Errol Flynn, who also makes a cameo appearance in Empress of the Splendid Season, where he provides an intimation to Lydia of a luminous life. Israel Levis recalls his friendships with composer George Gershwin, actor Gary Cooper, and writer Ernest Hemingway, even as he regrets the elusiveness of happiness.

Hijuelos’s novels are longitudinal studies of individual lives developed through and ravaged by time. None of the other characters is quite as saintly as the commercial artist Edward Ives, who demonstrates compassion even for the man who murdered his son. Yet Hijuelos’s own empathy is everywhere apparent in his portraits of fallible, sensual men and women who never seem equal to their hopes and their memories.

Publicly exuberant, Nelson O’Brien takes to private tippling, as insulation against his chronic melancholy, the same sort of anguish over the vanity of human wishes with which the lives of Cesar Castillo, Lydia España, and Israel Levis conclude. “Ally yourself with progress and tomorrow!” exhorts Forward America, the inspirational manual that becomes Cesar’s guidebook soon after his arrival in New York. “The confident, self-assured man looks to the future and never backwards to the past.” Hijuelos’s theme, like that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and so many other writers of classic American fiction, is the revenge of the past on the optimist. Ambitious for fame and fortune, Hijuelos’s characters end up afflicted by the melancholy of futile desire. Whether or not their author’s fame itself endures, his books offer the mortal pleasures of articulate anxiety. They are a wistful, wise reminder that more than ninety miles separate Cuba and the United States and that a sea of trouble divides ambition from accomplishment.

Our House in the Last World

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

Hijuelos traces the fortunes of the Santinios, a family that migrated from Cuba to Spanish Harlem in the 1940’s.

A Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman about an unhappy family of Cuban immigrants struggling in Spanish Harlem, Hijuelos’s first published novel culminates with Hector Santinio’s declaration of redemptive literary ambition: “I think that one day I would like to write a book, something that would so please my mother and my Pop, if he was still alive.” Our House in the Last World is just such a book, a text that, for the autobiographical Hector Santinio, as for his author Hijuelos, preserves and honors the tribulations of a working-class family struggling to succeed in a strange new land.

Letters from his sister in New York inspire Alejo Santinio with dreams of adventure and prosperity. In 1943, he and his wife Mercedes depart Holguín, their small hometown in Cuba’s Oriente Province. But the reality of life in Manhattan is much harsher than Alejo, forced to take a menial, low-paying job in a hotel, had imagined it. Alejo’s one transcendent moment in an otherwise dreary existence comes when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev steps into the hotel kitchen and is photographed beside him. A romanticized memory of their house in the last world—the lost world of pre-Castro Cuba—becomes a constant source of torment for Alejo and Mercedes in New York. But the two Santinio sons, Horacio and Hector, do not share their parents’ Hispanic associations. After contracting a serious illness during a visit to Cuba, Hector even comes to associate Cuba and the Spanish language with evil.

Hector, who is drawn into fierce battles with his father, is embarrassed by and resentful of the crudeness of his parents. His alienation from his parents is exacerbated by a visit to an affluent, confident aunt and uncle in Miami. It is only with the death of his father and the strengthening of his literary ambitions that Hector becomes reconciled to the Santinio legacy. Like many other young men’s debut novels, Our House in the Last World is the story of a son’s coming-of-age by coming to love the father he had fought and the culture into which he was born.

Hector’s older brother Horacio has an Irish American girlfriend named Kathleen whose family refuses to allow him past their door because he is Cuban. Hijuelos populates the neighborhood with Irish and Puerto Rican street gangs, but they are always seen from outside. What makes the book particularly distinctive is its vivid inside account of how first-and second-generation Cuban Americans adapt to life in the United States.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

First published: 1989

Type of work: Novel

In a final, boozy night of life, an aging Cuban immigrant recollects his early glory when he and his younger brother were promising musicians.

Hijuelos’s original working title for his second novel was The Secrets of a Poor Man’s Life. The version published as The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love shares those secrets in ornate prose that is often graphically erotic. The book, which became an enormous commercial and critical success and was adapted into a 1992 film, recounts the foiled ambitions of Cesar and Nestor Castillo. The ambitious young musicians arrive in New York from Havana in 1949 and, calling themselves the Mambo Kings, begin to establish careers in the lively postwar Latino nightclubs. While telling the Castillos’ story, Hijuelos also provides a vivid evocation of the music, clothing, idioms, and food of a particular time, place, and community.

Most of the novel is an elaborate flashback from a night in 1980 that the elderly Cesar spends in the Hotel Splendour, a Manhattan flophouse that has deteriorated as much as he has. It is here, during his final, boozy hours, that Cesar listens to the recording that he and his brother made in 1956 and recalls sexual escapades in that same room with Vanna Vane, Miss Mambo of June, 1954. At the end of the day, he reconstructs a thwarted life, themes of which are sex, love, memory, and music.

That life’s single instant of grandeur occurs in 1955, when Cesar and Nestor are invited to put in a brief, musical cameo as fictional cousins of Desi Arnaz on the popular I Love Lucy television show. They perform “Beautiful María of My Soul,” a wistful song composed by Nestor that evokes the memory of a ravishing woman who abruptly and mysteriously abandoned him in Cuba. Though he marries the bookish Delores Fuentes in New York, Nestor never overcomes his melancholy over the loss of his beloved. Shortly after the Mambo Kings’ auspicious television debut, the despondent Nestor is killed in an automobile accident. Cesar, who works in a meat-packing plant and then as superintendent of an apartment house, gives up playing songs of love. “Beautiful María of My Soul,” however, has been preserved on record, while the Castillos’ triumphant visit to the set of I Love Lucy survives in reruns. Listening to the recording and watching the television program, Eugenio, Nestor’s only son, marvels at art’s power to immortalize, to overcome his father’s death and his uncle’s self-destructive, alcoholic self-pity. For Eugenio, the cathode-ray tube has performed a veritably Christian miracle: “the resurrection of a man, Our Lord’s promise which I then believed, with its release from pain, release from the troubles of this world.” So, too, does Hijuelos’s novel perform the literary miracle of capturing the aspirations and exasperations of its thwarted characters’ fleeting lives.

The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien

First published: 1993

Type of work: Novel

Children of an Irish father and a Cuban mother, Emilio Montez O’Brien and his fourteen sisters grow up in Cobbleton, Pennsylvania, and move out into the world.

The opening sentence of Hijuelos’s third novel proclaims that “the house in which the fourteen sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien lived radiated femininity.” That radiation is powerful enough to cause horses to throw their riders, cars to skid into ditches, and a plane to fall from the sky. Patriarch Nelson O’Brien senses himself condemned to solitude in his own crowded home, and his proficiency at generating daughters perplexes and perturbs him. He rejoices when his final, fifteenth, child turns out to be a son. For Emilio, surrounded and coddled by a mother and fourteen sisters, woman sets the standard—“What was ugly in life, he thought male.”

As a title, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien is misleading. With an expansive, rhapsodic style, the novel does celebrate fecundity, but it does not give equal time or attention to all fourteen sisters. Emilio is not born until midway through the novel but is the object of as much narrative interest as any of the other O’Brien offspring. Though he begins with a chart listing all the O’Brien children and their years of birth, Hijuelos does not distribute his story equally among every member of the clan; the chronicle is partial to Margarita and Emilio. The first O’Brien child is old enough to be mother to the youngest, who as an infant is in fact suckled by his older sister. Margarita is a creature of exquisite, insatiable longing, through sexual and romantic trials that span the century. Emilio is an Olympic philanderer whose brush with vulgar glamor—he makes forty-two B-movies in five years during a meteoric Hollywood career—suffuses the story with melancholy over mutability. For the other O’Briens, a simple set of traits suffices: Helen is a beauty, Irene “ever-plump” and omnivorous, Veronica compassionate, Violeta “pleasure-bound and promiscuous.” Early films are a primal influence on the O’Brien children, whose father Nelson owns and operates Cobbleton’s Jewel Box Movie Theater. The entire family is in effect generated through still film; in Santiago, Cuba, in the summer of 1900, sixteen-year-old Mariela Montez is brought by her father to sit for a portrait in Nelson O’Brien’s photography studio. Mariela marries the handsome Irishman and moves with him to Pennsylvania. As an epigraph, the novel offers Nelson’s explanation of why, as late as 1937, he continues to use a shuttered, folding-bellows camera. The archaic instrument, he claims, most faithfully and effectively captures the sadness, joy, and worry of its subjects. The camera is an obvious analogy to Hijuelos’s own literary device for arresting the fleeting images of existence—the sadness, joy, and worry experienced by each of the O’Briens. The book is an old-fashioned collation of life studies, a patient record of moments from ten decades. Photography often provides its pretext for narration.

When, at various stages of their lives, Nelson, who continues with his camera work even after opening the Jewel Box, assembles his family for a group portrait, Hijuelos proceeds to tell the story behind the picture. After retiring as an actor, Emilio, following in his father’s line of work, becomes “photographer of the stars” in Los Angeles, and much of the rest of the story is generated by either the new prints that Emilio produces or the old ones that he ponders.

Empress of the Splendid Season

First published: 1999

Type of work: Novel

In painful contrast to her privileged childhood in Cuba, a beautiful woman leads a disappointing life cleaning other people’s apartments in New York.

With Empress of the Splendid Season, Hijuelos presents the tale of a frustrated immigrant, a melancholy story of downward mobility that serves as a counterpoint to the American Dream of personal advancement. In her native Cuba, Lydia España grew up as the beautiful spoiled daughter of a mayor and successful businessman. However, when she returns home late from a sexual encounter with a middle-aged married man, her furious father expels her from the household. The headstrong girl who had never deigned to tidy her own room ends up in New York, a newcomer forced to earn a living by cleaning other people’s apartments.

The novel begins in 1957, when Lydia, thirty-two, has already been in the United States for a decade. Married to a waiter named Raul and the mother of two, she is obliged by her husband’s heart condition to be the principal breadwinner. Raul had proposed marriage while reciting a poem that called Lydia “the Empress of my love . . . of the most beautiful and splendid season.” Despite the straitened circumstances in which they live, in a shabby Manhattan tenement, Lydia continues to regard herself regally. She ponders the privileged life that she left behind and daydreams about glamorous alternatives to her arduous reality. She daily travels the subway as part of the city’s invisible army of cleaning ladies. By making Lydia his visible protagonist and her prosperous employers peripheral, Hijuelos reverses the usual literary priorities.

Empress of the Splendid Season provides a charwoman’s perspective on the dirty linen of the affluent. When Lydia is hired to clean for the Ospreys, a wealthy family on Park Avenue, she enters an enchanted realm of luxury and poise. During decades of cleaning their posh apartment, she becomes especially fond of kindly Mr. Osprey, a prominent attorney, and he of her, though both remain acutely aware of their social divide. When Lydia’s son, Rico, is arrested, Mr. Osprey obtains his release and finances his tuition at an expensive private school, the first step toward Rico’s success as an expensive psychiatrist. He and his sister Alicia, who marries a man named Douglas Johnson and moves to a distant town upstate, have little to say to their immigrant parents.

The epilogue, set after the widowed, weary Lydia’s death, recalls a transcendent moment when she was lifted out of drudgery by a glimpse of the famous actor James Mason. Empress of the Splendid Season takes the full measure of a life marked by disappointment. Yet while recognizing that wealth and status do not guarantee happiness to Mrs. Osprey either, it suggests that the novel’s title is not entirely ironic. Though life turns out quite differently from what Lydia wished, it was in a way a splendid season and she its empress.

A Simple Habana Melody: From When the World Was Good

First published: 2002

Type of work: Novel

A popular Cuban musician returns home after internment in Buchenwald puts an end to a glorious career in Europe.

A Simple Habana Melody begins in 1947, as Israel Levis returns by ship from Spain to his native Cuba. A popular musician best known for “Rosas Puras,” a rumba hit that he wrote in 1928, Levis is only fifty-seven, but internment for fourteen months in Buchenwald concentration camp has rendered him a frail old man. Most of the novel consists of Levis’s melancholic recollections of happier times in Havana and Paris.

Levis was a creative force within the vibrant Cuban culture of the 1920’s. Though he also composed operas, symphonies, and ballets, he became best known for a song he wrote in a few hours for the singer Rita Valladares; in “Rosas Puras,” he expresses unfulfilled longing for a beautiful woman whom he could never bring himself to woo, though she was attracted to him. A devout Catholic dominated by his widowed mother, the fleshy Levis channels strong sexual urges into visits to brothels and into his music. He also suppresses erotic interest in other men. After Manny Cortez, his friend and librettist, is assassinated by agents of dictator Gerardo Machado, Levis leaves for Paris, hoping to be closer to Valladares, who is now performing there.

During the 1930’s, a vogue for things “tropical” helps make Levis the toast of Europe. He tours widely with his own orchestra, making his home in a luxury hotel in Paris. Valladares stars in the zarzuela that Levis creates out of “Rosas Puras,” but, while continuing to pine for her, he cannot allow himself to express with her the vigorous sensuality that he enjoys with hired women. Indifferent to politics, Levis immerses himself in music and the libertine pleasures of Paris. He relishes his renown and friendships with other artists, including Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and Gary Cooper.

By the time that Germany conquers France in 1940, most other foreigners have left. Levis remains, however, writing and performing, even when Sarah Rubinstein, a Jew who has become his lover, is forced to flee. Because of Levis’s association with Sarah and because his own name sounds Jewish, the Gestapo classifies him as a Jew and forces him to submit to humiliating restrictions. In 1943, he is transported to Buchenwald. Except to note that scraps of food slipped to Levis as reward for occasional command performances probably kept him alive, Hijuelos leaves it to the reader to imagine details of life and death in the camp.

Most of A Simple Habana Melody is thus an ailing older man’s ruminations over his vanished prime. For Levis, Havana in the 1920’s and Paris in the 1930’s represented moments “when the world was good”—as the novel’s full title suggests. No longer able to compose or to perform sexually, the Levis who repatriates to Cuba has lost two elements essential to his personal identity, religious faith and joie de vivre. What most torments him now, awaiting death, is realizing his naïveté in believing that goodness prevails over evil. The world is more complex than the simple Habana melody that defined the life of Israel Levis.