Booknotes: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

Immigrant assimilation has been one of the most popular themes for American authors since, well, the time of the early immigrants. Earlier this year, when confronted with the term, “immigrant fiction”, for her writing, Jhumpa Lahiri was quick to point this out in a New York Times interview, saying:

I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.

Oscar Hijuelos’ most well-known and Pulitzer-winning novel also addresses this tension between alienation and assimilation that Lahiri spoke of. When he died earlier this year, I realized that I had yet to read it and, in honor of his life, I picked it up.

From the very start, this story just sings and dances off the pages. Although book-ended with memories of Eugenio Castillo, first as a young boy and then as a grown man, this is the story of his uncle and his father, the two Cuban immigrant brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who leave their homeland in the 50s to come to New York just when the Afro-Cuban and Latin music scene is taking off. Although, before you even get through a third of the book, you realize that it is really just the story of Cesar Castillo, as Nestor, the younger brother dies in a car accident (and that’s not a spoiler).

When Nestor dies, taking his broken heart with him but leaving behind the brother and a wife and two young children, a part of Cesar dies with him. And, over the remaining decades of his slipping-down life, Cesar practically turns into the brooding, reflective and melancholic Nestor, with only his wonderful memories sustaining him. And, of course, his great physical appetites that eventually got the better of him. In fact, at times, it seemed that Cesar and Nestor were really two aspects of one person. When they were both together, they were like Yin and Yang – Cesar as the outgoing, gregarious man of unquenchable physical and sexual appetites and Nestor as the inward, quiet man, starving for the love of one woman. With Nestor gone, that balance was disrupted and Cesar took on many of Nestor’s traits and, indeed, even his memories.

The novel is structured so that we get the entire story in a sort of rambling reverie during Cesar’s last night in one of his favorite haunts, Hotel Splendour. He is alone in a room there, enjoying his last drinking session, save for the music records from his heyday with The Mambo Kings Orchestra, which he and his brother headlined. We meander with Cesar back and forth between childhood and adulthood, Cuba and America, family and friends, success and oblivion and the many musical performances with both real and fictional performers. A man of ravenous and unquenchable appetites till the very end – food, drink and sex – Cesar’s journey from the hopeful, cocky, macho young musician to the almost-forgotten, has-been building superintendent with no real family or legacy to leave behind is sad and tragic. Yet, Hijuelos’ prose is rarely sentimental. Even when we’re deep in the recesses of Cesar’s memories, rather than simple nostalgia, the writing evokes many complex, sometimes sympathetic, emotions and thoughts – both for the character and for the reader. There are two main reasons for this.

First, Hijuelos crams so many richly-drawn characters into the story, giving us complex interactions and back-stories. We have, not just Cubans (who work as maids, butchers, factory workers, janitors, etc. during the day and play music and dance their hearts out at night), but also other communities flourishing in New York at the time, for example, the Jewish and Irish-Catholic immigrants. We get a complete world and see how all of these different groups have left behind their own homelands and loved ones and are working to create their dream lives in America. There’s Nestor’s beautiful wife, Delores, with her maid’s job and ambitions to study and become a teacher, the many women who adore Cesar, from the vixen-like Vanna Vane to the young, single mother, Lydia Santos, at the end, the crook, Perez, who is religious to a fault, yet makes his millions through drugs and prostitution, Mrs Shannon, the Irish-Catholic building landlady who secretly crushes on Cesar, Bernardito Mandelbaum, the Jewish friend and many more.

And, second, he gives us rich, vivid and lyrical writing (although, some passages do border of floridity and there are probably far too many sex scenes than we need to understand Cesar’s passions). No matter what the mood of the scene being described, it is just so complete and alive, almost cinematic or jazz-like. For example, this description of the brothers on stage together:

He’d get up on the stage, dancing before the microphone while his musicians took the music forward. The glory of being on a stage with his brother Nestor, playing for crowds of café-society people who jumped, bounced, and wriggled across the dance floor. While Nestor soloed, Cesar’s heavy eyelids fluttered like butterfly wings lilting on a rose; for drum solos his hips hook, his arms whipped into the air: he’d take backwards dance steps, gripping his belt with one hand a crease of trouser with the other, hiking them up, as if to accentuate the valiant masculinity therein; outline of the big prick through white silk pantalones. Piano taking a ninth chord voicing behind a solo, he’d stare up into the pink and red spotlights, giving the audience a horse’s grin. Woman in a strapless dress dancing a slow, grinding rumba, staring at Cesar Castillo. Old woman with her hair coiffed upward into a heavenly spiral, starting at Cesar. Teenage girl, Miss Roosevelt High School Class of 1950, thin-legged and thinking about the mystery of boys and love, staring at Cesar Castillo. Old ladies’ skin heating up, hips moving like young girls’ hips, eyes, wide open with admiration and delight.

There are many opulently-described cinematic scenes – how the brothers met and made music with Desi Arnaz or Tito Puente, how they appeared on the ‘I Love Lucy’ show – their one big brush with success, how Nestor  composed 22 versions of their hit ballad-y song, ‘Beautiful Maria of my Soul’ or ‘Bella Maria de Mi Alma’. Some of these scenes are shown beautifully in the movie version with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas. But, as with any movie based on a novel so wide-sweeping as this, covering many decades and many characters, it has to necessarily try to fit the entire story into a couple of hours and cannot do the novel justice. Still, watch it for the 2 male leads, who are captivating in every frame and the amazing music that will stay with you for some time.

Cesar’s lust and longing for life continue with him through to the end, even in his dying throes. And, while he has some deep regrets for things not done or said, and paths not taken, what never fails is his wonder for the many seemingly-magical and near-mystic experiences that his everyday life had to offer – beyond anything he could have imagined when he and Nestor left an already-agitated Cuba to try their luck in the land of the free.

During his last hours, most of Cesar’s memories are of his childhood in Cuba. It’s as if the long-entangled threads are slowly untangling for him, even as they never quite tie up neatly for him or for us, the readers. We learn about how he learned music on crude hand-made instruments from self-taught peasants and average musicians in Cuba. One of those teachers, whom he had to pester and bribe with alcohol stolen from his viciously abusive father, told him:

When you play music, you have to remember that just about everything composed has to do with love and courtship. Especially when you learn to play your older music, like the habaneras, zarzuelas, and our own Cuban contradanzas. It has all to do with romance, the man holding a woman around her waist, bowing to her, and then having that one moment in which he may whisper something in her ear, the ladies like that. In the case of the contradanzas, there’s a minute’s pause, hence the name, “against the dance”. And, during that pause, the man would have a chance to talk to the woman….. And, you have to remember, boy, that what people want is to throw up their arms and say, “Qué bueno es! How wonderful!” when they hear the music. Understand?

And, at the end of reading this story, those words echo: “Qué bueno es! How wonderful!”

[Note: There is a related novel by Hijuelos, called ‘Beautiful Maria of My Soul‘ – the back-story for Nestor’s love, Maria, who he left behind in Cuba but never got over, even writing 22 versions of this song for her. Critics did not laud it as much, yet, it might be an interesting read if only to see how Hijuelos fleshed out the woman’s viewpoint or perspective.]

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