While reviewers often liken Oscar Hijuelos’ dreamy, rich novels to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Hijuelos himself takes exception to the comparison. These reviewers are “myopic,” he told a writer for The New York Times. “I love Yeats and Flann O’Brien.”
And the language in Hijuelos’ novels is indeed as poetic as the language of his Irish heroes. When The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, the story of two Cuban brothers who move to Spanish Harlem in the 1950s to make their mark as singers, appeared in 1990, readers and critics waxed ecstatic about Hijuelos’ writing.
Hijuelos, a second-generation Cuban-American who was born in New York City, writes about assimilation and identity, love and loss, and the power -- and pain -- of family life. In Our House in the Last World, Hijuelos’ first book, he explores the world of memory and displacement, following the fortunes of a Cuban family transplanted to New York in the 1940s. In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, for which Hijuelos received the Pulitzer Prize, Hijuelos created the Castillo brothers, Nestor and Cesar. Their story was recounted through Cesar’s memories and fantasies, as he lived out his last days in a seedy hotel. In researching the book, Hijuelos steeped himself in Latin music from the period and in his own remembrances of his childhood on Manhattan’s 118th Street. The result is a highly charged yet tender distillation of past, suffused with a crystalline sense of detail that brings Nabokov to mind.
Hijuelos attributes some of this obsession with memory to his heritage. “Latins are predisposed to thinking about the past,” he told the Times. “Catholicism has a lot to do with it because Catholicism is a contemplation of the past, of symbols that are supposed to be eternally present.”
With The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien (1993), he took his exploration of memory in a different direction, telling the story from the perspectives of several female narrators, and stretching them across several generations. In 1999’s Empress of the Splendid Season, he switched perspectives again for the story of a cleaning woman whose life is a stark counterpoint to that of her wealthy employer’s. Three years later in A Simple Habana Melody, Hijuelos returned to "when the world was good," in 1920s Havana with a love story told by a Cuban composer whose infatuation inspires him to write the most famous song of his career.
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Writers Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag were among Hijuelos’s teachers at City College of the City University of New York.
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