Born the day Castro came to power, the protagonist of this thoughtful novel comes with her mother and father to the United States when she is two, but cannot ignore her tangled Cuban roots. Alejandra San Jos? and her parents, Nena and Enrique, settle in Chicago, where Enrique works as a literary translator and Nena grows roses and sunflowers. Their neighborhood is predominantly Jewish, and as Ale grows up she picks up on small signs that her family has something in common with its neighbors. It is not until she is an adult, however, working as an interpreter, that she discovers that her father is Jewish, the grandson of a flamboyantly Jewish hero of the Cuban war of independence; her mother, though devoutly Catholic, has Jewish ancestors, too. On a series of trips to Cuba, Ale comes to know her father's oldest friend, Mois?s Menach, and through him learns her family's history. In her stays with the Menachs, and her charged friendship with Mois?s's son-in-law, Orlando, she learns about contemporary Cuba and gradually comes to terms with her own identity. The searching narrative digs deep into questions of faith, conversion, nationality and history, exploring philosophical issues in human terms. Though sharp, cleverly observed details bring Havana and Chicago to life, the novel is richer in ideas than in depictions of place. Obejas (Memory Mambo) is concerned most of all with relationships between Ale and her lovers, male and female; between Ale and her secretive father. If the near-plotless narrative drags in places, it is redeemed by Obejas's clear-eyed, remarkably fresh meditation on familiar but perennially vital themes. 3-city author tour. (Aug.) Copyright 2001 Cahners BusinessInformation.
Obejas's (Memory Mambo) second novel may be the first in the subgenre of both Jewish American and Cuban American fiction: the Jewish-Cuban-American novel. In this well-considered and heartfelt examination of exile and return, two-year-old Alejandra San Jos has left Cuba in 1959 with her parents. Her father is Jewish, though he hides it, even breaking a window in anger when his daughter and her friends spy him praying in his basement office in Chicago. Her mother is both Catholic and a sometime believer in the Santer a gods. Ale's visits to Cuba in 1987 and 1997 lead her to extraordinary discoveries about herself, her cultures, and her family, as she slowly learns of her great-grandfather's and father's clinging to a religion whose Cuban adherents have become scarce over time. Her own sexual experiences, more vivid in Cuba than in the United States, help her recognize that Cuba, Judaism, and tropical eroticism make up a complex personality, which Ale bears on her back like a Bedouin. With intelligent, intense writing, Obejas approaches, in ambition, the heady climes of Cuban American stalwarts Oscar Hijuelos and Cristina Garcia. Highly recommended for collections strong in Latino and Jewish American literature. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/00.] Harold Augenbraum, Mercantile Lib. of New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A Jewish Cuban discovers her roots
BY ARIEL GONZALEZ
Achy Obejas' Days of Awe is an ambitious work that should throw a national
spotlight on a deft talent whose approach to sex, religion and ethnicity is
If Days of Awe has a flaw, it is the author's zeal. Obejas seems to shoehorn
every bit of research she's amassed (and it is prodigious) into her
narrative. But this is a minor quibble. Like Philip Roth in his recent
novella, The Dying Animal, a love story between an old Jew and a young Cuban,
Obejas illustrates the stark similarities between these two groups: strong
family unit, tireless work ethic, a longing for a foreign land and deep
wounds inflicted by a dictator. And as Roth began to do 40 years ago, Obejas
reinvigorates the ethnic/immigrant psychodrama, setting up a guidepost for
others to follow.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at the Wolfson Campus of Miami-Dade Community
An inert second novel from Cuban-born Chicago Tribune culture reporter Obejas (stories: We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, 1994, etc.) strains to illuminate the history of her native land and its Jews before and after the Revolution. Narrator Alejandra San Jose, whose family fled Cuba on the day of the Bay of Pigs, is part of the problem here. Humorless, self-absorbed, and long-winded-the defining moment of her father's life is hinted at so often that the eventual revelations are neither surprising nor interesting-she turns what could be a sweeping tale of identity, exile, and loyalty into a turgid clash between faith and nationalism. Moving back and forth from the present to1897, when patriarch Itzak fought heroically in Cuba's War of Independence against Spain, Alexandra describes her family's struggle to practice Judaism and her own ambivalence about her faith and her homeland. Like many others, her ancestors converted to Christianity to avoid persecution, but never forgot their Jewish roots. After Itzak had Alejandra's father Enrique circumcised, some of the family began openly acknowledging their faith, despite the increasing anti-Semitism of the 1920s and '30s. Her parents now live in Chicago, where Enrique is an esteemed translator of literature, but she senses a mystery about him that transcends the sadness of exile. In 1987, Alejandra returns to Cuba as a translator for touring Americans, meets old relatives and family friends, and learns more about her past and her faith. On further visits her sense of Cuban and Jewish identity grows as she observes the changes in Cuba after the Berlin Wall falls and describes how her relatives adjust to powerfailures, wealthy tourists, and rationing. When Enrique dies, Alejandra takes his ashes back to Cuba-where she will finally learn his long-dark secret from a childhood friend. Sincere but lifeless.
“A NOVEL THAT MANAGES TO BE BOTH SHARP-WITTED
AND ELEGIAC, BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN AND
FULL OF SURPRISES THROUGHOUT.”
Author of In My Other Life
“Obejas relates the compelling and disquieting history of Judaism and anti-Semitism in Cuba amidst evocative musings on exile, oppression, inheritance, the unexpected consequences of actions both weak and heroic, and the unruliness of desire and love.”
–Booklist (starred review)
“Achy Obejas trains her poet’s eye and her journalist’s zeal on the ambiguities of exile, the disappointments of passionate love, and the fascinating 500-year story of Cuba’s hidden Jews. We won’t get anything as pat as a happy ending for our heroine, Alejandra, born with the Revolution, but the reader is guaranteed a magnificent journey.”
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Author of The Old Neighborhood