Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1470
Jose Bernardo's Silent Wing portrays the life and loves of Cuban poet and revolutionary hero Jose Julian Marti. The novel begins in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in the year 1877 and concludes twenty-two years later in Dos Rios, at the east end of Cuba in the year 1895. This is the story of a man compelled to speak, write, and take action on behalf of freedom, even if that means sacrificing his own true love and life in the process.
The narrative begins with Sol, ‘‘a beautiful young woman with dreamy dark eyes and long golden hair.’’ She is seventeen, of marrying age, uninterested in any of the young men she has met. She converses with her nursemaid Xenufla, a Mayan Cakchiquel Indian woman. Xenufla intimates that ‘‘men can be a lot of fun.’’ Sol is embarrassed but listens closely to her advice. Following Xenufla's instructions carefully, she visits a church in Jocotenango and speaks to the statue of Santa Rita.
Sol records in her diary the details of the saint's advice:
Then, all of a sudden, I felt a tremor under my feet. I thought we were going through an earthquake, so I looked around me. But not a thing was moving, and yet I was shaking badly. I got so scared. I did not know what to do. It was then I looked up at the Saint again and noticed that her eyes were changing form and color, little by little becoming dark blue instead of brown until they became the dark blue eyes of a handsome man with dark, thick eyebrows.
Sol returns home and describes to Xenufla what has happened. Xenufla is happy for the "wondrous sign.’’ She is convinced that the man has been chosen by the gods ‘‘to always be by her nina's side" and that he is "on his way to her. Now all there was to do was to wait for him.’’
Julian is a young man of 26 traveling on board a small steamship named El Futuro heading for Guatemala. Exiled from his homeland of Cuba for nearly nine years, he has constantly moved with ‘‘no country’’ and ‘‘no job.’’ He wonders when he will be able to return to his homeland.
Ten years before, he had lived in Mexico City with a job writing political essays for La Revista Universal. After a coup d' tat, he was encouraged to leave and travel to Guatemala. Senor Fermin has written a letter to Professor Saavedra, the principal of the Escuela Central in Guatemala City on Julian's behalf. He has given Julian money and a letter of introduction to Gualterio Rubios, the new liberal president of Guatemala. Although Julian has few possessions, his books are the most precious:
His books are his friends-the friends who talk to him. Just as his diaries are his friends-the friends who listen.
Before leaving Mexico City, Julian proposes to Lucia, the daughter of an exiled Cuban lawyer. Her acceptance surprised him, yet, ‘‘what was done was done.’’
Upon his arrival in the small Mayan village of Puerto Dulce, Julian makes his way over the mountains to Guatemala City. The journey is exhausting but Julian enjoys the nights in the jungle. He writes his diary, ‘‘I slowly fall asleep, dreaming of love.’’
Julian arrives in Guatemala City, finds an inexpensive place to stay, and makes plans to contact Professor Saavedra. Julian meets Professor Saavedra and immediately impresses him. Already Saavedra wishes to introduce Julian to Don Manuel, the general who led the Guatemalans to independence.
On his way to his room one evening, Julian meets an organ grinder and a little monkey called Chirilingo. The man tells Julian that the monkey will bring him ‘‘a little bit of wisdom about the future.’’ He is given two messages: ‘‘When honor and truth are at odds, let truth prevail’’ and ‘‘Don't give up hope. The girl you've been waiting for is just around the corner."
Julian and Lucia continue to correspond through letters. Julian is hired as an instructor and requested to examine the new civilian codes for Guatemala. Gabriela, the younger sister of Sol, is one of Julian's pupils. She begs her father to invite Julian to Sol's "coming-of-age" party. Don Manuel agrees. An invitation is sent.
During a local, passionate, and erudite debate in the school's auditorium, Julian has an opportunity to speak on the subject of which is mightier, the pen or the sword? Julian presents a stirring speech in which he concludes, "It is up to each of us to make that world [of peace] come true. Today.’’ Later that evening, his Mayan friend Panoplo remarks cryptically, ‘‘It's painful, very painful to be chosen by the gods.’’
Julian goes with Professor Saavedra to meet Don Manuel. Don Manuel is immediately impressed with Julian and treats him like a son. Later, at Sol's party, Julian keeps to himself. Then he sees Sol, ‘‘the most beautiful girl he has ever seen in his life." He is completely swept up by emotion. Sol is equally as swept up. Julian, however, realizes that he will never have a chance to fulfill his dream:
And as Julian weeps for joy, he finds himself also weeping at the devastating realization that, as close as he has been to the woman of his dreams, the woman of his poems, he must learn to forget her, he must not-ever-see her again. His most sacred word of honor has been given to Lucia. And once a Cuban criollo man gives his word of honor, it is never to be broken. Never.
Julian writes a letter to Lucia declaring they will be married and "live the life" of her "dreams.’’ He intends to keep his pledge. During a conversation with Panoplo, Julian learns of a Mayan belief. Julian confesses he has found his love and has lost her. Panoplo explains, ‘‘if you really found the woman the gods mean for you to have, then she will always be by your side, no matter what."
Julian spends every free moment in the company of Don Manuel and as many "private" moments as he is allowed with Sol. Lucia makes wedding plans and spends Julian's money as quickly as she receives it. Their wedding date is set. Julian plans to leave for Mexico City. Lucia, in the meantime, wonders if she loves Julian. She thinks:
She would like to love him. She wants to. She needs to love him. She needs to let the passionate woman she hides inside to come out and fully experience that kind of love, the kind she has heard so much about, whatever that kind of love is like. All she knows about that kind of love is through her lady friends.
Julian and Sol part.
Lucia and Julian, now married, journey to Guatemala where a position of full professor awaits him. They arrive in Guatemala City and meet with Professor Saavedra. Shortly after their arrival, Don Manuel invites them to his home. Julian arrives with Lucia to discover that there are rumors that President Rubios has ‘‘gone crazy’’ and has imprisoned several suspected traitors. They return to their hotel where Julian announces they will be leaving Guatemala. This stuns Lucia. She informs him that she is pregnant and accuses him of not thinking of her.
A doctor visits Sol and finds her feverish. In her mind, she sees Julian in the white gazebo where they used to meet and talk. She runs to him and gives herself to him completely. That same night, Julian goes to the gazebo where he and Sol often met. There he finds Xenufla and learns that Sol has died. He writes in his journal, ‘‘Shaded by a silent wing I must write of a love in full bloom."
After several years of traveling from Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras, Mexico, and Florida, Julian, Lucia, and their son Ismaelillo live in Brooklyn, New York. It is the winter of 1883. Julian is unhappy. Lucia is embittered by the life they lead. Lucia confronts Julian about a worn photograph. Julian denies nothing. Less than a week later, Julian returns to an empty apartment. Lucia has left with their five-year-old son. Upon reading Lucia's letter, he vows: ‘‘My son will not die in an enslaved Cuba.’’
It is now May 19, 1895. Julian is in a small encampment in Dos Rios, Cuba with his army at the ready. He receives a report that the enemy is close and gives the order to attack. As he "leads his men in a fearless charge,’’ he is bringing his dreams to fruition. He is shot and killed. His last thoughts are of Sol.
The USS Maine is destroyed while anchored in the bay of La Habana. The United States enters into war with Spain. The result of the war is liberation of Cuba on May 20, 1902.