Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Memory Cannot Be Confined

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia is a novel about memory--remembering, forgetting, trying to forget and attempting to find peace when forgetting is impossible--and about the past and how it affects the present.

Celia del Pino lives alone in her house on the beach in Cuba. She believes fervently in the good of El Lider and the revolution. She keeps watch at night to guard against another Bay of Pigs invasion. The way she sees it, the revolution has allowed women to do things other than stay at home and have babies. It has also given everyone food to eat and health care. Celia's devotion to Castro (she has a framed photo of him on her nightstand), drives her daughters away. She also spends a good part of her married life writing letters to her first lover, a man from Spain, who left Cuba just before the revolution. The narrative takes us back and forth through time, moving fluidly between past and present, making it evident that, as Celia notes at one point, "memory cannot be confined." She is right. We are our memories and our past, we carry it all with us into the future and pass it along to our children and grandchildren.

Felicia, one of Celia's daughters, still lives in Cuba but suffers from bouts of mental breakdown. She despises the revolution but she is powerless to fight against it. She is a woman filled with pain and anger. She was always second fiddle to her sister who was their father's favorite. To get out of the house and to get back at her father, she marries Hugo Villaverde and is banished. They have three children but their marriage does not go well. He cheats on her and does nothing around the house. He travels the world on business but it never seems like he contributes much to the household. In one of her delusional and anger-filled moments, Felicia sets Hugo's head on fire. Her little way of telling him to get out and never come back. Felicia eventually finds comfort in santeria and is even initiated as a saint. Her mental break downs seem to arise as a sort of coping mechanism for her life. She loses herself in her imagination, but as she tells her son, Ivanito, "Imagination, like memory, can transform lies to truths." However, she fails to see how her own imagination recreates the world.

Lourdes, the eldest of the sisters (there is a brother too, but this is not his story), married into a rich family. When the revolution came she lost everything. Not only was the family's ranch taken from them, but one day when her husband was away Lourdes was brutally raped by three revolutionaries. She tells no one, not even her husband. She carries the secret inside her and even when she has the opportunity to tell her mother many years later, she can't let it go. Lourdes, her husband, and baby daughter, Pilar, escape to New York. Lourdes buys a bakery and stuffs herself with pecan sticky buns. She is a bit of a tyrant and can't understand why her employees always quit and why her daughter constantly fights against her. Her daughter says of her mother, "Maybe in the end the facts are not as important as the underlying truth she wants to convey. Telling her own truth is the truth to her, even if it's at the expense of chipping away our past."

Finally, Pilar, Lourdes' daughter. She is a rebellious punk rocker and a talented artist. She has a connection to her Abuela Celia. When Pilar is still young she and Celia can communicate in dreams and thoughts. The connection gets broken during Pilar's teenage years but is re-established when she is college-aged. It is Pilar that wonders most about the past and about memory. She has to come to terms with her Cuban heritage and what it means to her family. She sees the past as a fluke:
I think about the Granma, the American yacht El Lider took from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 on hi second attempt to topple Batista. some boat owner in Florida misspells "Grandma" and look what happens: a myth is born, a province is renamed, a Communist party newspaper is launched. What if the boat had ben called Barbara Ann or Sweetie Pie or Daisy? Would history be different? We're all tied to the past by flukes. Look at me, I got my name from Hemingway's fishing boat.
While Celia worries that no one has loyalties to their origins any longer, Pilar struggles to understand "who chooses what we should know or what's important?" And finally realizes,"I have to decide these things for myself."

I could go on and on. Dreaming in Cuban is a rich book and a pleasure to read. It contains some lovely gem-like sentences that encapsulate a thought or idea that have kept me, and will continue to keep me, thinking about this book.

Cross-Posted at So Many Books

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dreaming In Cuban

This is a novel about a Cuban family divided by beliefs and geography. The book mainly focuses on the lives of Celia del Pino, her two daughters, Lourdes and Felicia, and her granddaughter, Pilar. There are other important family members but these are the characters that truly made the book for me.

Through letters and flashbacks the reader learns about Celia’s life in Cuba. She was once a young woman madly in love with a Spaniard but had to settle for marriage with Jorge Del Pino.

“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. Celia has removed her drop pearl earrings (gifts from him) only nine times, to clean them. No one ever remembers her without them.”

And just like she is committed to her love for the Spaniard, Celia develops a strong belief in Fidel Castro.

“Her daughters cannot understand her commitment to El Lider. Lourdes sends her snapshots of pastries from her bakery in Brooklyn. Each glistening ├ęclair is a grenade aimed at Celia’s political beliefs, each strawberry shortcake proof – in butter, cream, and eggs – of Lourde’s success in America, and a reminder of the ongoing shortages in Cuba.”

Celia’s daughters don’t have an easy life either. Felicia’s life is filled with Santeria and periods of mental instability. It may seem that Lourdes’ life might be the easiest as she has a successful bakery business in the States but she has her challenges too. Her daughter, Pilar, is rebellious and her husband is not as committed to the States or to Lourdes as she would like. Plus, she has a past she is desperate to keep away from just as she’s kept away from Cuba.

My favorite character was Pilar. She is the new generation who doesn’t understand her mother and ultimately is searching for her roots. She needs to see Cuba and know her grandmother to find out what she is about.
At the core of the novel is the theme of family relationships and the impact of exile on those relationships. To leave your country is difficult but if you can never go back then I can’t imagine the feelings of anger, despair and/or sadness that this may bring.

This is a slim novel that manages to juggle a lot of stories and ideas. It’s filled with lush imagery and has a dreamy feel to it. The only thing that didn’t work as well for me were the jumps in timeframe. Maybe because of the different narrators and styles, I found that could be a bit hard to follow. Still this was a good read and I will definitely look for more from Cristina Garcia.

Cross-posted at Bookgirl's Nightstand