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.