The Secret of the Bulls

Overview

From an exciting new Cuban-American writer comes a lively, lusty novel that moves from the turn of the century to the late 1930s, alive with passion, romance, machismo, and the unerring wisdom of women.

Maximiliano and Delores marry and manage to raise a family, despite parental disapproval, natural disasters, financial hardships, and the "machismo" traditions of Cuban society in the early twentieth century.

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Overview

From an exciting new Cuban-American writer comes a lively, lusty novel that moves from the turn of the century to the late 1930s, alive with passion, romance, machismo, and the unerring wisdom of women.

Maximiliano and Delores marry and manage to raise a family, despite parental disapproval, natural disasters, financial hardships, and the "machismo" traditions of Cuban society in the early twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Steamy sex scenes, lush prose, genial spirits and exotic locale (Cuba, mostly Havana, between 1911 and 1938) lend commercial appeal to this unabashedly sentimental first novel. Yet, although it seems to aspire to the earthy comedy and sophistication of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, the writing here is pat and predictable. When Dolores, a wealthy landowner's daughter, elopes at 18 with the butcher Maximiliano, her family disowns her. She finds happiness with her errant husband, however, excusing his constant philandering because he's ``an aging champion bull who's just afraid of getting old, so he has to prove to himself all the time that he is still a champion.'' This taurine imagery pervades the story, in which women are likened to ``female bulls,'' deadlier than the male once provoked. Nevertheless, Merced, daughter of Dolores and Maximiliano (and a Taurus, naturally), can't keep the reins on her husband, who discovers his homosexual nature in a bordello and later commits suicide. Meanwhile, one of Merced's brothers is beset by baseless doubts about his parentage, and another, learning that his wife is unfaithful, refuses to kill the cheating duo, as custom dictates. Bernardo-born in Havana, now living in New York-drenches his present-tense narrative in the lilting rhythms of a more mellow, pre-Communist Cuba. Author tour; simultaneous Spanish hardcover edition from S&S Libros en Espanol. (Mar.)
Library Journal
In his fictional debut, Bernardo resurrects prerevolutionary Cuba replete with the sights, sounds, and odors of Havana's barrios, as well as its earthy lifestyle. He follows the fortunes of the butcher Maximiliano and his well-born wife, Dolores, who, with their four children, come to the capital to make a new life after a hurricane destroys their entire village. Using the bulls of the title as a metaphor for the swaggering machismo of Cuban men, Bernardo turns this family saga into a brilliant tapestry of the human condition. Love, gossip, jealousy, fear, wisdom, sacrifice, and death all swirl around Maximiliano and Dolores as their children grow up, leave home, and come to terms with their individual natures. The dignity with which the author imbues his characters and his engaging conversational style make for a wonderful novel. It should be a hit in most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/95.]-Andrea Caron Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, Kan.
Kirkus Reviews
Earthy, overheated first novel, on the theme of Latin American machismo and its discontents, by a Cuban-born author whom we're invited to compare with Laura Esquivel.

Similar popular success may indeed greet this florid family chronicle, set in Cuba and covering the years 191138 in the lives of the lusty butcher Maximiliano, his gorgeous and devoted wife Dolores, and their four surviving children. When the couple first meet, fall thunderously in love, and marry (defying Dolores's wealthy landowning father), the poverty they endure early on forces them to surrender their eldest son Mani to live out his formative years with his grandparents, leaving him thereafter burdened by his sense of himself as "a child nobody every really wanted." Their other children suffer as well: daughter Merced with a troubled young husband whose inability to love her disastrously erodes his own self-worth; and second son Gustavo, a would-be poet whose courage in defying his father's expectations fails when Gustavo cannot—as their macho code demands—murder his faithless wife and her lover. "The secret of the bulls" that rush through Havana's streets flaunting their rough masculinity is that their momentum is carrying them toward the slaughterhouse. If this novel has an animating idea, so to speak, that would be it. Bernardo conveys such deeply uninteresting truisms in a bland style that's crammed with sentimental clichés and flattened by repetitive sentence fragments. Feminists won't be the only readers who'll howl with mingled outrage and hilarity at the lame-brained retrograde view of sex, characterized by such drippy diapasons as this description of lovers as "a god with a scepter of power between his legs possessing and being possessed by a goddess with a diadem of copper between hers."

Deliriously "romantic," insufferably maudlin, shamelessly derivative (including a blatant steal from The Godfather, Part II), and very, very stupid. Wait for the movie—and pray to whatever gods there be that it won't have a voice-over narration.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684831374
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/13/1997
  • Series: Scribner Paperback Fiction Series
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 0.68 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Reading Group Guide

1. Why might Bernardo have set The Secret of the Bulls before the revolution? Is he nostalgic or critical, or both? How does it affect the style of his writing?

2. What roles -- both literal and symbolic do bulls play in The Secret of the Bulls? How does the author develop the phrase, "secret of the bulls" as a metaphor? What is the secret of the bulls? What is Mani's relationship to the bulls? What is the significance of his working in a butcher shop on the street where the bulls race to their death?

3. In the world of prerevolutionary Cuba, what roles do men and women play? What accounts for their inequality? What consequence does this inequality have for both men and women, for the family, for society as a whole?

4. Bernardo explores the psychology of machismo in The Secret of the Bulls. What conclusions has he reached? What conclusions did you reach? Is it true that underneath the machismo that defines the lives of Cubano men, these "bulls" are really controlled by the women they love?

5. Human sexuality is a strong current in the book and Bernardo treats it openly and passionately. Discuss its importance to the novel, to the lives of its characters, and to the Cuban world Bernardo has created.

6. How does Bernardo treat the subject of homosexuality? Are his homosexual characters limited by the dictates of the prevailing machismo culture? If so, how? Of all the characters in the novel, why is the homosexual character Tonio the one who dies? What is Bernardo saying?

7. What is Dolores's role in the novel? Why is it significant that she never knew her mother, leaves her father, and marries a man beneath her class? How do these facts have abearing on Mani and the conclusion of the story?

8. Dolores tells Mani, "We are not like those bulls. They are afraid because they have no choice. They have to follow someone else's path. They don't know where they are going. But we know they are rushing to their death, just as we know we are rushing to ours. And that is why we don't have to be afraid, Mani. Because we know with absolute certainty that no matter what path each of us takes, that path will eventually lead us to our final destination, Mani. To our own death. So, Mani, my son, even if the rest of the world does not like it, we might as well choose a path of our liking and move on it at our own speed." What relevance does this quote have to the book, to the secret of the bulls, to Mani's destiny?

9. Why might Bernardo have chosen Dolores as the instrument of Mani's transformation? What is it Mani needs to be freed of? How else does Dolores help to free Mani? Why is it important to Dolores and to the novel that Mani be freed?

10. Dolores says, "The royal palm trees stand tall and proud, don't they? And yet they bend down whenever a hurricane rushes through their lives. Because if they didn't, tall and proud and beautiful as they are, they would all break and die." What significance does this metaphor have in the course of the novel both for the story and for the characters?

11. How does Mani reconcile himself to not killing Graciela and her lover even though it might mean the ruin of the family name? What might Bernardo be trying to say with this departure from tradition?

12. The character of Graciela possesses an innate innocence. Her feelings for her lover have such a purity of passion, that in spite of her marriage, Graciela believed her affair was not a betrayal but the consummation of true love. How did you feel about this? How did you react to Graciela?

13. What does family mean to the characters in the novel? What is Bernardo's vision of family?

14. Every character in The Secrets of the Bulls is an artist in their own right. Maximiliano approaches his butchering trade as a sculptor would approach marble. Gustavo is a poet in love with words and Merced and Mani share the eyes of a painter. Dolores brings art to everything she does from sewing to making the perfect cup of Cuban coffee. What does The Secret of the Bulls teach us about art and everyday life? About the aesthetic sensibility?

15. What are the different dreams each character entertains? Which of them fulfills their dreams and how? What might Bernardo be saying about the importance of dreams?

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