A Simple Habana Melody

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It is 1947, and Israel Levis, a Cuban composer whose life had once been a dream of music, love, and sadness, returns to Cuba after being mistakenly imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of France.

When Levis arrives back in Habana, his mind returns to an unrequited romance with the alluring Rita Valladares, a singer for whom Levis had written his most famous song, "Rosas Puras." This 1928 composition became the most famous rumba in the world ...

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It is 1947, and Israel Levis, a Cuban composer whose life had once been a dream of music, love, and sadness, returns to Cuba after being mistakenly imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of France.

When Levis arrives back in Habana, his mind returns to an unrequited romance with the alluring Rita Valladares, a singer for whom Levis had written his most famous song, "Rosas Puras." This 1928 composition became the most famous rumba in the world and changed American and European tastes in music and dance forever.

A love story—of art, family, and country—A Simple Habana Melody is a virtuoso performance from one of our most important writers.

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Editorial Reviews

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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)

Don McLeese
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 tricky—the 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 see—his 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 music—the 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.
Publishers Weekly
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.
Library Journal
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060928698
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/17/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 991,766
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos was born of Cuban parentage in New York City in 1951. He is a recipient of the Rome Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. His five previous novels have been translated into twenty-five languages.

Oscar Hijuelos nació de padres cubanos en Nueva York en 1951. Sus otras novelas incluyen Mr. Ives' Christmas, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien, Our House in the Last World y A Simple Havana Melody (Una Sencilla Melodía Habanera). Vive en Nueva York.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 24, 1951
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., City College of the City University of New York, 1975; M.A.,1976

Reading Group Guide


A gaunt man walks the deck of the ocean liner that is taking him home to Cuba. He is sad and frail, saying little, eating less, politely nodding to his fellow passengers, many of whom know his name, even though they don't recognize his face or figure. Twenty-five years earlier this same man was famous throughout the world. He was corpulent, expansive, and cheerful. On any given night he could be found at a Habana nightclub enjoying a sumptuous meal, perhaps rising to entertain the crowd with one of his famous songs. Later he might visit a bordello, then return to his comfortable home and sleep soundly until the next afternoon.

The transformation of Israel Levis can be traced most directly to the years he spent in Buchenwald, where he "mistakenly" was sent by the Nazi forces occupying Paris. But Israel's spiritual journey is a decades-long process of reflection and self-examination that comes into full relief in this beautiful elegiac novel about identity, music, and faith. Along the way we are treated to a vibrant, fascinating portrait of Habana before and after the Second World War.

Born to an affluent, educated Habana family, Israel Levis was a musical prodigy, coddled and adored by his parents. He grew up believing that his talent was a gift from a benevolent God, whom he would one day meet in Heaven. As he grows older, Israel begins to encounter life's imperfections: his beloved sister dies young, and his father is killed in a tragic accident. He falls in love with a beautiful singer, yet cannot reveal his feelings to her. He is horrified to find himself attracted to other men, and represses these unseemly passions with visits toprostitutes.

By the time he reaches adulthood, Israel Levis is famous -- not just for his musical gifts, but also for his appetite for food, drink, and women; for his generosity, piousness, and devotion to his mother; and for his eccentric ways. A melody he composes on the fly becomes an international sensation, and his fame grows. As Habana suffers through a brutal dictatorship, Israel continues to live the life of a dandy, plagued by his unrequited desires, and only vaguely aware of the dangerous unrest that surrounds him.

Convinced, finally, that he is at risk in Cuba, Israel immigrates to Paris, where he is the toast of the town. Even as Hitler advances on the city, Israel continues to pursue his primary interests: music, food, and sex, with little thought to the changing world. It isn't until he is identified as Jew by the Nazis -- despite his exhortations of his Catholicism -- that he becomes fully aware of the horrors unfolding around him. Little by little the life that Israel so enjoyed slips away. He is shunned, derided, and eventually shipped off to Buchenwald where, along with thousands of others, he is stripped of his dignity, his identity, and eventually of his faith in God.

Until his imprisonment, Israel Levis would have considered himself a blessed man, convinced that God was watching over him and protecting him. Israel's relationship to God was not unlike a child worshiping a parent, wondering what that parent is truly like, but happy enough to accept his or her sovereignty without question. Once he is released, Israel has lost his voracious appetites. He feels betrayed by God, and remembers with humiliation the life he had before, consumed as it was with trivial and vain pursuits.

And so Israel returns to Habana a changed man. He is no longer certain of his faith, or even of the importance of his musical gift. His longings for food and drink, for women and men, have been replaced by an unsettling awareness that his life has been wasted. Where once he welcomed fame, he now shies away from the limelight, for if God fails to exist, then so must his talent. When at last he dies, Israel revisits his childhood, his fantasies and joys, his sorrows and disappointment. But most of all he wistfully remembers the Habana of his youth, when life -- and the world -- was good.

Questions for Discussion

  1. "Rosas Puras," the simple melody of the novel's title, becomes "a blessing and a curse" to its creator, Israel Levis. How does the song reappear throughout the novel? How does its significance change over the course of Israel's life?

  2. Why do you think Hijuelos gave his main character, a Catholic, a name that seems to be Semitic? Is he merely illuminating the history of Jews in Spain? Is he making a larger point about identity and religion?

  3. Like any person who survived the Holocaust, Israel emerges from his experience at Buchenwald a changed man, both in appearance and in spirit. One of the most fundamental transformations has occurred in his religious thinking; he was once a devout Catholic, but now he no longer believes in the existence of God, for how could God allow such evil to exist? Does Israel's abandonment of his belief indicate that his faith was never as strong as it appeared?Is faith only valid once it's been tested?

  4. Israel spends much of his adult life longing for the singer Rosa Valladares, but he never speaks of his true feelings, even though Rosa clearly returns his affections. Do you think these two would have been happy in a romantic relationship? Is it really a fear of rejection that keeps Israel from telling Rosa the truth?

  5. How do you explain Israel's affection for his friend, Manny Cortez, a person who seems so at odds with Israel's own personality?

  6. How do you reconcile Israel's homosexual yearnings with his frequenting of bordellos and his love for Rosa? Is he bisexual? Homosexual?

  7. Why do you think Israel waits so long to notice, or protect himself from, the dangers brought about by the political situations in Habana and Paris? Is he truly unaware? Or is he relying on the good fortunes that seemed to have befallen him since his infancy?

  8. As a man of voracious appetites, Israel can never seem to get enough to eat or drink and he is equally dissatisfied in his romantic life. Why do you think this is? What would truly satisfy Israel's "appetites?"

  9. How does Hijuelos portray the idea of celebrity in Israel's time? How did the advantages and drawback of fame differ from those today?

  10. Mistaken by the Nazis for a Jew, Israel's life in Paris becomes one of restriction, discrimination, and eventually imprisonment. How would you feel if you were cruelly persecuted for being something you are not? Could he have tried harder to convince the Nazis that he was not Jewish? Should he have done more to further the cause of the resistance?

  11. If Israel had escaped imprisonment by the Nazis, how do you think his life would have turned out? Would he have professed his love for Rosa? Would he have continued to write music? Would he still maintain his devotion to Catholicism?

  12. Do you agree with Israel that his life "as a composer and conductor of orchestras was really the life of a clown, or an impostor, of someone tricked by fate" (p. 23)? How important is a "simple melody" when compared to the suffering of innocents, or the destruction of a dictator's regime?

  13. The novel is composed of vignettes, often very brief, and descriptively titled. What is the effect of this structure on the novel? Does it make Israel seem more real as a character?

  14. At the beginning of his novel, Hijuelos defines the term, zarzuela, the kind of Cuban song Israel becomes famous for composing. How is the definition significant to the novel?

About the Author

Oscar Hijuelos was born in New York City in 1951, the son of Cuban immigrants. He attended City College of New York where one of his instructors in the creative writing program was Donald Barthelme.

After leaving the university, Hijuelos wrote a number of short stories, some of which were included in The Best of Pushcart Press III anthology in 1978. One of his first professional works, "Columbus Discovering America," received an outstanding writer citation from Pushcart Press in 1978. The exposure from this award led to an Oscar Cintas fiction writing grant, a Breadloaf Writers Conference scholarship, and grants from the Creative Artists Programs Service and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.

Hijuelos published his first novel in 1983. Our House in the Last World examines the life of a Cuban immigrant family in America during the 1940s. Critics praised the novel as a warm and vibrant depiction of the family's experiences in America and noted that the work reflected a departure from other Cuban writers who often focused on the political struggles in Cuba or life in exile. In 1985 Hijuelos received a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989, he published his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which became a critical and popular success. It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989, as well as the National Book Award. A year later, the work earned Hijuelos the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction -- the first Hispanic American novelist to win the prize.

Hijuelos's third novel, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien, appeared in 1993. Hijuelos said that he wanted the novel "to portray a world in which women were very powerful. I took the idea of machismo and pushed it, getting inside the skin of the characters.... I wanted to look behind the basic images of women." It was followed in 1999 by his fourth novel, Mr. Ive's Christmas. Empress of the Splendid Season was his fifth novel. This book portrays the joys and frustrations of Lydia España, a Cuban émigré who works as a cleaning woman in Manhattan, while exploring stories of the secret lives she uncovers in her clients' apartments.

While writing is obviously a large part of his life, Oscar Hijuelos has a wide range of other interests, including music. In 1998, he appeared along with other prominent authors on a double-CD collection of 32 songs titled "Stranger Than Fiction." In addition, Hijuelos is a collector of old maps, turn-of-the-century books, and graphics.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2002

    A Complex Habana Life

    This exquisite novel is based somewhat on the life of the great Cuban composer Eernesto Lecuona (remeber Malaguena?). Although it is obvious from the outset what the plot will be, the story unfolds in a series of tiny titled chapters, each of which presents its own little surprise. To a musician, the music described in the course of the book is almost audible.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2002


    There couldn't be a more perfect pairing than the words of Pulitzer-prize winning writer Oscar Hijuelos and the voice of acclaimed actor and Emmy winner Jimmy Smits. Accomplished in multiple venues, stage, film and television, Smits delivers an impeccable reading to the mesmerizing story of Cuban musician, Israel Levis, the maker of rhumbas. The year is 1947 and Levis, slim and old, is returning to Habana, Cuba, following his incarceration in Buchenwald. Although a practicing Catholic, he was thought a Jew because of his last name. His suffering is a marked contrast to his youth in a well-to-do family where he was raised as a child prodigy. Music was his love, his life. In 1928 he had composed 'Rosas Puras' or 'Pretty Roses' for his favorite singer and the woman he loved, Rita Valladares. This composition became the most famous rhumba in the world. At that time Cuba reeled under a dictatorship, the iron fist of Geraldo Machado. Eventually the dictator forced Levis to leave Cuba and seek sanctuary in Paris. He lived there in relative peace until 1940 when the world was torn asunder, and he became a victim of the Holocaust. 'A Simple Habana Melody' in the hands of the brilliant Oscar Hijuelos is so much more than the story of one man. It is a reflection on art and country superbly rendered by Jimmy Smits.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2002

    A musician's life

    If you are fascinated by the tortured soul and decadent proclivities of a musician¿s life then you¿ll love this book. Israel Levis was born in Cuba in 1890 and displayed a talent for music at a very young age. He became well-known as a classical and popular pianist but it was his composition of Rosas Puras that sky-rocketed him into world renown fame. He lived the musician¿s fantasy ¿ touring all over the world, beautiful women in every city, jam sessions with the most eminent artists, parties until dawn, overflowing brandy and an endless supply of talent which seemed to pour through his fingers at will. Still, his uncompromising devotion to his mother and God, his secret appreciation for the most handsome men, and his giant-like appearance due to overabundant eating cause him to be painfully timid in the presence of the woman his truly loves. While living out his opulent life in Paris, he is branded a Jew during the Nazi occupation in France because of his Jewish sounding name. Even though he is the most pious of Cuban Catholics and despite his celebrity status and many bribes he is subsequently sent to a concentration camp. Does he ever regain the joy and exuberance that once flowed from his heart to his music? This absorbing and endearing tale was my first novel by Hijuelos and I¿m looking forward to reading the rest of them.

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