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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 530 words.)

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