The Bolero King Plays Songs of Love
"In 1957 when her beloved husband, Raul, had fallen ill, Lydia Espana went to work, cleaning the apartments of New Yorkers much better off than herself." So begins Oscar Hijuelos's splendid new novel, Empress of the Splendid Season. For the next 40 years, Hijuelos's Cuban-born heroine will continue her humble career, inadvertently discovering the secrets of a long succession of eccentric Manhattanites while mopping and dusting their apartments.
The book's title is from a poem Raul composed one night dancing with Lydia before they were married. "Ever formal and attentive to Lydia, [Raul] remained the gentleman, at first preferring the slow dances, the boleros and ballads, over the mambos and cha-cha-chas, and, though he was not a romantic sort, the right piece of music, say 'Dulce Engano' ('Sweet Deception'), could bring out the poet hiding in his soul...." (Aha Hijuelos is teaching a different style of Latin dance in this novel. Perhaps he even considered calling it The Bolero King Plays Songs of Love.) As Raul dances, reveling in the scent of Lydia's hair, he proclaims that she is the "Empress" presiding over the "splendid season" of love.
Oscar Hijuelos himself feels a little exiled from that song and season. "When you move away from the mythology of love, no matter how well you do in life, there's always a little bit of loneliness," he told me on the phone. He quoted his book's epigraph, from Milton, "Loveliness is the first thing which God's eye named not good...." Hijuelos then elaborated on his melancholy:"Imyself often feel extremely lonely. I mean, it's the nature of my work, solitude. But also I lament the passing of the idea of a community which I could easily fit in."
The community he means is a Cuban-American one. His parents left Cuba for Manhattan in the 1940s, and Hijuelos was born in Spanish Harlem in 1951. "There are strong Cuban-American communities in Miami and New Jersey," he said. "But here in New York, I live in a much more fragmented world in the sense that I belong to many communities and at the same time not solidly to any one."
I was quiet, then joked, "In other words, you're a typical New Yorker."
Hijuelos laughed. And why not? The city is the centerpiece of this book, as Lydia becomes witness to the crazy lives of those who live here. As a cleaning woman, her first clients include a spooky guy whose bathroom wall is covered with upside-down crucifixes and a prim gentleman who one day accidentally leaves pornographic photographs scattered in his bedroom, and a classic Hijuelos touch a frightened cat under the bed. Then Lydia begins her decades-long association with the enigmatic Mr. Osprey described as a dead ringer for Eisenhower who lives in a town house that takes up an entire city block. By the end of her career, after experiencing her neighborhood upheavals during the Columbia University strikes of the '60s, Lydia ends up cleaning for a woman who keeps semi-magical greyhounds in little cages in the living room.
Hijuelos admitted that a number of these stories were based on reality. For example, he knew someone who hung rows of crucifixes upside down along a bedroom wall. Lydia has a reminiscence set in Cuba that was based on what a Cuban lady once told Hijuelos: "She was with her very virginal great aunt in Havana. They saw Errol Flynn and the virginal aunt fainted."
Another Hollywood legend, James Mason, makes an appearance as Lydia glimpses the actor in front of a Manhattan hotel. "Yes, that really happened as well," Hijuelos explained. "I saw James Mason standing in front of the Plaza Hotel eating a sandwich, waiting for a car." Then he added, "Very gingerly eating a sandwich."
I tell the author that encountering a movie star in the flesh is the closest most of us ever come to experiencing magic realism. Hijuelos agreed. "Movie stars are the closest things we have to supernatural presence. The great thing about writing about Manhattan is that it's not implausible for Lydia to see James Mason. He appears as sort of a gleaming knight. There is a little undertone in the book that it's sort of a fairy tale. That's why I introduce these larger-than-life characters to emphasize the more romantic or fairy tale aspects of the story."
This talk of James Mason made me want to know about Hijuelos's Hollywood experiences with The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. "It's a crazy thing," he told me. "You sit around one day idly writing a scene wondering, Will anyone ever read this? And a year later see it up on a screen." Hijuelos even appeared as one of the extras. "There's a funeral scene, and I'm sort of in the crowd milling about." He laughed. "James Mason I'm not."
He then half modestly, half pleased with himself named a number of other movie stars he's met in the flesh. "But you know, the person who excited me most was García Márquez." Hijuelos met the abuelo of all magic realists at the White House during a recent reception for the Colombian president. "Márquez made my day because he told me he loved The Mambo Kings," Hijuelos said with pride, adding, "It's really a thrill to be in contact with a historical personage who is really personally meaningful as opposed to just being a movie star."
Later, while talking about writers we knew and what we were reading, Hijuelos said something that really illuminated his character for me. "I'm a real biography fan. I just finished reading Stefan Zweig's biography of Marie Antoinette (now out-of-print). I'm reading his biography of Balzac. I love reading biographies best because I love seeing the dynamics and curve of people's lives being laid out."
His words made me suddenly understand Empress of the Splendid Season better. As a novel that follows a woman's entire life, it's really a fictional biography. (Or perhaps the real biography of a woman who is only a fictional character.) Either way, this woman did not live just a single life. "Lydia is always thinking of her other past, that alternate one if she had stayed in Cuba," Hijuelos explained. "James Mason both symbolizes the husband she would have had if she'd stayed in Cuba as well as her ideal fantasy of life in America."
Hijuelos was living two lives as well: "I still dream about a boyhood trip to pre-Castro Cuba. If not for a quirk of fate, that is where I would have been born. I would have had my father's childhood experience of growing up on a Cuban farm." Hijuelos revealed that he was as obsessed with James Mason as he was with his doppelgänger's life in Cuba. "I've always kind of liked James Mason the actor," the author said. "Matter of fact, once upon a time I almost wrote a book called The Man Who Thought He was James Mason."