Dreaming in Cuban
One result of revolution is a vast increase in theoretical happiness. Meanwhile, behind the slogans, life goes messily on. A woman sets fire to her sailor husband, who has infected her with syphilis. Her second husband is killed in an accident days after the wedding. She attempts suicide and dabbles in the gore and sorcery of a goat-sacrificing cult. And she quarrels with her mother, an upper-class convert to the revolution who has spent much of her life pining for a long-lost lover: ”For twenty-five years Celia wrote her Spanish lover a letter on the eleventh day of each month, then stored it in a satin-covered chest beneath her bed.”
The chief virtue of Cristina Garcia’s first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, the story of three generations of a Cuban family dispossessed by Castro’s revolution, is that it gives us Cuba without slogans, and for that matter anti-Castro Cuban exiles without stereotypes. Garcia, born in Havana on the Fourth of July, 1958, and raised in New York City, accomplishes this by telling the highly diverse stories of the women in the del Pino family. The men are mostly on the margins or altogether off the page, though the women are haunted by them, in one case literally. Celia’s husband, Jorge, leaves Cuba for medical treatment in New York and dies there, but his ghost amiably visits his fat and fiercely anticommunist daughter Lourdes, who runs a bakery in Brooklyn with an iron hand and a sweet tooth.
Lourdes’ daughter, Pilar, who grows up in 1970s Brooklyn, is given most of the book’s first-person narration and seems to be the author’s delegate in the proceedings. She paints, affects disaffected punk mannerisms, and chafes under her mother’s prying eye: ”My paintings have been getting more and more abstract lately, violent-looking with clotted swirls of red. Mom thinks they’re morbid. Last year, she refused to let me accept the scholarship I won to art school in Manhattan. She said that artists are a bad element, a profligate bunch who shoot heroin. ‘I won’t allow it, Rufino!’ she cried with her usual drama. ‘She’ll have to kill me first!’ Not that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.”
Her rebellion seems compounded of standard adolescent sedition and obnoxious gestures off the pop culture assembly line, but what slowly emerges is her wistful affinity with grandmother Celia, whom she hasn’t seen since infancy. Pilar’s visit to Cuba and to Celia, with her reluctant mother in tow, sets up the novel’s concluding commotion, which involves Pilar’s helping a cousin to escape the country. And Pilar inherits the mantle of family chronicler from her grandmother, who had stopped writing those unsent letters (which are part of the narrative) at Pilar’s birth. For Pilar, Celia writes in her last letter, ”will remember everything.” The book in fact has more of the fragmentary feel of a family memoir than a fully imagined (or reimagined) story, but it’s a remarkable family. Your pleasure in reading about its passionately quirky members may be sporadic, but there’s nothing theoretical about it.