The Barnes & Noble Review
With an uncanny understanding of the intricacies of the human spirit, Oscar Hijuelos -- Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love -- creates beautifully flawed, emotionally fragmented characters who are at once passionate and sexless, impenetrable and vulnerable, godlike and meaningless. Hijuelos's melancholic, multilayered A Simple Habana Melody paints a portrait of another conflicted character whose self-centeredness, myopia, and unrequited passion wildly intertwine to stymie a promising career and hopes of happiness.
It is 1947, and Israel Levis, a once world-famous musical composer, has just returned to his native Cuba after imprisonment in a WWII Nazi death camp. When the corpulent, gentlemanly Levis becomes snuggled safely once again into his native land, his thoughts rush back to his longtime secret love, Rita Valladares, an alluring singer-siren for whom he wrote his simple yet infectious 1928 song "Rosas Puras" ("Pretty Roses"). As the narrative sweeps through 1930s Paris and the Nazi occupation of France, we see how Levis's universally appealing rumba, like his undying -- and unfulfilled -- desire for Valladares, remains a pure constant even as his selfish devotion to music, excessive pride, vague homosexual yearnings, and indifference to his own drunkenness block the maestro from seriously pursuing creative and personal happiness.
With the bustling creative communities of Paris and Havana of the 1930s as a backdrop, Hijuelos's vivid storytelling paints an achingly romantic portrait of artistic waste, sexual restraint, and stunted intellectual inspiration. A Simple Habana Melody is a complex, atmospheric, and elegant work that beguiles even as it leaves the reader with puzzling questions about the nature of passion and devotion. (Will Romano)
Music encompasses the raptures of sexual desire and spiritual redemption in the fiction of Oscar Hijuelos, whose novels should be accompanied by a soundtrack. With its insistent rhythms and melodic cadences, A Simple Habana Melody almost demands to be read as a companion piece to his 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Yet the two novels could hardly be more different in spirit. Whereas Hijuelos' earlier work overflowed with sexual exuberance and creative energy, the new narrative's tone is one of resignation. Most of the novel takes place within the mind of a protagonist in his late fifties, a composer whose soul has become an empty shell, his life force all but spent.
When Israel Levis left Cuba for Europe in self-imposed exile, he resembled Oliver Hardy. When he returns home fifteen years later, he looks like Stan Laurel. No longer finding pleasure in his life, Levis derives what solace he can from his memories, as he reflects on his creation of "Rosas Puras," the song that led him to worldwide renown and personal heartbreak. He remembers a time when music pervaded his existence, when he heard it everywhere as evidence of God's presence and purpose in the world.
"He heard music in the sonorous tinkle of water-splashed fountains, in the clip clop of horse hooves, in the clanging of church bells, in the straining voices of divines preaching in the placitas on Sunday mornings," writes Hijuelos. "He would thank God for bringing him into the world in which such a magicality like music existed."
Hijuelos renders Levis' coming-of-age as an emergence from an innocent Eden (there is even a garden outside the room where thepiano prodigy practices). Through prose that sings, the book celebrates the various streams that swirl around musical Cuba, where African rhythms, European melodies and indigenous folk tradition have forged a unique synthesis. Yet not even paradise can stem the inner conflicts of composer Levis, a man whose music brings so much pleasure to others yet falls so far short of satisfying his own desires.
The novel's narrative strategy is deceptively trickythe author presents the introspective musings of a man who doesn't really know himself. Levis can't resolve (or, in some cases, even acknowledge) his contradictions. Is he homosexual or heterosexual? Catholic or Jew? Sinner or saved? Blessed by his musical gift or cursed because that gift isn't even greater?
At the heart of the novel is the composer's infatuation with Rita Valladares, the songbird who inflames his conflicted lust and inspired his most famous song. Introducing Cuba's music to the world at large, she becomes the toast of New York, the personification of the hot-blooded Latin temptress, though Hijuelos gives her a depth beyond such caricature. She recognizes the composer's passion for her and she's willing to return it, yet their relationship becomes a series of missed opportunities.
"Even though you are something of a genius when it comes to music," she tells him, "there are many, many things that you don't understand." Despite the novel's title, the reader recognizes that there's nothing simple about Levis, that there are undertones of ambiguity within this composer beyond the singsong tunefulness that has brought him musical renown. As Hijuelos writes, "There existed within him a numbness to feeling. And this disheartened Levis, for without emotion there would never be music, and without music his life would be a living death."
Upon his return to Cuba following World War II, Levis no longer believes in God or music. No God worthy of worship would have permitted the horrors of the Holocaust, he believes. No music can salve the wounds inflicted by such monstrous evil. How can the artifice of religion or the paltry pleasures of art withstand the brutal force of a world gone mad?
Ultimately, the novel is less concerned with the composer's life of musical accomplishment than with what he doesn't do, doesn't seehis inability to come to terms with his sexuality, his spirituality and the world that surrounds him but fails to engage him. While an ill-fated romance with a Jewish woman provides temporary solace, it takes the prospect of Nazi imprisonment to make Levis realize what a prison he has made of his own life.
Levis "felt such an unexpected feeling of appreciation for the beauty of this world that he nearly wept, thinking with great nostalgia about so many things: the sun, the stars at night, the murmuring ocean, hounds, ice cream, a woman's succulent breast, chocolate, the expression on a baby's innocent face, and musicthe world brimming with music."
Like a musical composition, the novel ends on a high note, with an epiphany that brings Levis' life full circle. Yet the ending feels artificial, tacked on, failing to convince the reader that a depression as deep as the protagonist's could lift so easily. Reawakening himself to a world of song, Levis advises his nephew, "Never lose your curiosity about God, for once that happens, you become dead inside." Only when Levis begins to see himself as a detail in God's master plan can he hear music again.
After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry, Adorno famously, and wrongly, intoned. Hijuelos is after a milder, and seemingly more eccentric, moral conundrum: can there be, after Buchenwald, any more rumbas? The question is not as silly as it sounds at first - as Hijuelos points out, the rumba was the invention of a "lonely, begrieved slave" who "took up guitars and drums, and eventually created the rumba - a dance of a few closely held (chain-bound) steps..." The maker of rumbas at the center of this novel is Cuban musician Israel Levis, sent to Buchenwald in 1943. Hijuelos begins his story with Levis, now a thin, elderly-looking man, coming back to Habana in 1947, then leads up to the events that foreground that return. Brought up as a child prodigy in a good, upper-class family, Levis progresses from recitals of the classics to compositions soaked in the music of the street. In particular, Levis loves the zarzuela, a type of Cuban operetta in which rumbas prominently feature. "Rosas Puras," the most famous rumba of the '20s and '30s, was Levis's composition. He wrote it with his favorite lyricist, Manny Cortez, in the Campana Bar, for his favorite singer and the love of his life, Rita Valladores. Unfortunately for Levis, Cuba is ruled at this time by Geraldo Machado, a dictator, and Levis is eventually forced to leave his city because of Machado's harassment. He settles in Paris; takes a Jewish dance instructor, Sarah Rubinstein, as his lover; and collaborates on an opera with her brother, George, until the world falls down in 1940. While there is a faintly contrived air about Levis's experience of the Holocaust, Hijuelos triumphs in capturing the sights and sounds of Habana at the edge of modernity. (June) Forecast: Pulitzer-winning Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, etc.) is poised for blockbuster sales again with his big-buzz latest, which sports an eye-catching '40s-style jacket. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
A Simple Habana Melody is the fictional biography of Cuban composer Israel Levis, stately and corpulent, talented and humble, sentimental and sensuous, yet formal and even pious. His simple melody is "Rosas Puras," a worldwide hit in the decade before World War II, which allows Levis to settle in Paris, lead a life of luxury, and meet many of the famous artists of his time. Though he never works up the courage to declare his love to Rita Valladares, inspiration for his best-known song, they remain friends for decades. His long affair with dancer Sarah Rubenstein gets him in trouble with the Nazis, who assume he is a Jew, never mind the crucifix he wears. Jimmy Smits is a good choice as reader, handling accents and Spanish phrases with aplomb. Hijuelos, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, captures his characters and milieu well, but the story itself lacks drama, leaving the listener oddly uninvolved. For larger collections.-John Hiett, Iowa City P.L. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Pulitzer-winner Hijuelos (Empress of the Splendid Season, 1999, etc.) is at his massively engaging best in this bittersweet life story of a gifted Cuban composer. Israel Levis-whose Jewish-sounding name will one day make him a prisoner in Buchenwald-is born in 1890 into a Habana household where books, music, science, and religion (his mother is devoutly Catholic, his father a physician and amateur naturalist) all thrive in a wonderful sort of harmony. Little real surprise, then, when at age four little Israel shows himself a musical prodigy-or that his talent grows so rapidly that he is soon performing, winning awards, and composing. What first makes him internationally famous, however, is the one simple song-"Rosas Puras"-that he writes ("pulling that simple melody out of the balmy October air of Habana") one day in 1928 for Rita Valledares, the singer 12 years his junior whom he'll love passionately all his life but remain too timid and formal ever to let her know. These two lives-of the portly, kind, gifted composer and the vibrant, pretty singer-lie at the center of the book, but so do the "lives" of Habana and Paris as evoked by Hijuelos: the vibrant, cosmopolitan, lively, sophisticated life of Habana through the 1920s and up to the early 1930s, when Israel finally (times turn bad under the dictator Machado) joins Rita Valledares in Paris and experiences that city's wealth of liberality, beauty, variety, and inspiration as he composes, drinks, performs, and meets the likes of Ravel, Stravinsky, etc. But this wondrous tale of melodies and cities ends with the Nazi occupation, and in 1947 Levis returns to Habana a broken and disillusioned man, although the six years of his life that doremain will be, in Hijuelos's hands, among the most moving of all. A masterpiece of history, music, wonder, and sorrow that capably embraces most of a troubled century. Riveting. It should go far indeed. Author tour