By February 23, 2009 0 Comments Read More →

A Cuban Novelist’s Heartfelt New Work

The life-numbing poverty of Cuba never ceases to be appalling. Achy Obejas, who translated Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into Spanish, doesn’t flinch from recording her country’s misery in her deeply compassionate new novel, Ruins. She depicts an island world where a man’s pride and integrity are constantly tested, because anyone will do anything for a few pesos. Rosita, one of the hero’s neighbors, for instance, marinates blankets in her delicious sauce, cuts them into squares, and sells them between bread as meat sandwiches. Survival is the issue.

Usnavy (pronounced Uss-nah-veee), the novel’s hero, is a disillusioned old man who was named by his mother for the big American ships that used to be in the harbor, and is one of the few remaining on the island who tries to believe in the old values of the Revolution and do things the honest way. Now Usnavy’s bicycle has been stolen, his daughter has been arrested for not having valid Cuban ID, and his friend Diosdado’s gay son Reynaldo is returning to the island for a visit after his sex change into Reina. The only thing holding Usnavy’s hopes together is a damaged Tiffany lamp that he finds in a ruined building and hopes to repair and sell. When his best friend Obdulio takes a chance on a raft and escapes from the island with his family, Usnavy won’t go with him. He wants to believe in Cuba. Somehow he still has hope.

Obejas takes you into the world of the disenfranchised and disillusioned. The Revolution has come and gone, leaving even greater poverty in its wake. Every possession has been repaired and repaired again. So many neighbors are abandoning the homeland, setting sail on anything that floats, that Usnavy can no longer hurl abuse at them for betraying the cause. There’s no cause left.

Sixty pages from the end of the novel, I notice I’m slowing down. I keep closing the book every couple pages. The characters are so likeable that my anxiety is rising – will Usnavy be cheated out of what little he has? Will his damaged Tiffany lamp finally set him free from starvation-level poverty? Will he finally take his wife and daughter and set sail for Miami? Or is this novel going to end with hopes crushed by reality, and even more disillusionment?

I remember the last time our reading group read a novel about Cuba – it was Dirty Blonde and Half Cuban by Lisa Wixon, and most of our members found it upsetting. The depiction of a society forced to prostitute itself constantly to survive, the degrading nature of constantly selling yourself, outweighed the pleasure of the narrative. I was the only reader who would go to bat for the book, and I still do. It opened my eyes. What is literature for?

Usnavy’s desperate attempt to keep his wife and daughter healthy and happy, his lost ideals and his fascination with lamp-making, make him a genuinely-likeable center to this tale of Cuba, and the universality of his concern for his family may make Ruins successful as a reading group choice, an accessible glimpse into the lives on our suffering little island neighbor.



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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