Readers whose high school Spanish stopped this side of a bottle of mezcal should be advised that Los Gusanos, the title of John Sayles’ novel, translates as ”The Worms” — Fidel Castro’s term for Cubans who fled their country rather than endure his revolutionary government. Vast in scope and sweeping in ambition, Sayles’ story of the passionate intrigues and political obsessions of Cuban exiles in Miami is his first in 12 years. Using the experience of one family of Cuban exiles, the author does his best to depict the sorrows and ironies of a half century of Cuban-American relations. For each member of the De la Pena family — as for almost all of the embittered exiles in the novel — the only reality that matters remains behind them in La Patria, the lost island nation.
The father, Scipio, lies comatose in a Miami nursing home and dreams of his cattle ranch in Camaguey province. His eldest son, Blas, fought for the revolution only to see it betrayed by communism. Blas’ younger brother, Ambrosio, a dreamy poet, died on the beach as a result of CIA bungling during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Their beautiful sister — Sor Marta de los Dolores (Sister Marta of the Sorrows) — spends her life poring over her dead brother’s diaries. ”Muy sincera, muy religiosa, muy obsesionada,” and too young to remember much about Cuba itself, Marta daydreams about a dramatic event that will redeem the family’s honor and her father’s pride. And where Cuba is concerned, drama always means violence and sorrow. In the words of Sayles’ mouthpiece, Narciso Villas, an intellectual imprisoned by Castro, ”Conspiracies, denunciations, coups and pogroms, ancient grudges, all settled in blood.”
So far, so good. As in his better films, Sayles demonstrates a flair for character, dialogue, and atmospheric detail that makes Los Gusanos both evocative and persuasive. Indeed, maybe a bit too much so for some tastes. For the sake of authenticity, he has chosen to pepper the narrative with words, slang phrases, and sometimes whole paragraphs of dialogue in untranslated Spanish. While clear enough in context, these passages will nevertheless pose a problem for many readers. Maybe Sayles thinks people who can’t make them out would be too impatient with the novel’s convoluted storytelling anyway. If so, he’s probably correct.
For a film director, Sayles has produced an intensely literary novel. Told from the point of view of more than a dozen characters whose separate stories gradually merge into one, the complex narrative alternates between Cuba and Miami and jumps forward and backward in time as well. Like a hurricane building strength over the Caribbean, Los Gusanos takes an awful lot of time getting started. But for those with the patience to stick with it, the novel has many rewards. B+