Once More, with Feeling

Beautiful Maria of My Soul, by Oscar Hijuelos (Hyperion, 2010).

In his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, published in 1989, Oscar Hijuelos captured with perfect pitch the nostalgic rhythm of the Cuban American experience. It told the story of two musicians, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who leave Havana for New York during the mambo craze of the 1950s. The brothers are as different as night and day: Cesar is the front man, a brash womanizer, while Nestor is shy and melancholy, and spends his life rewriting a wistful bolero to his lost love. They have their moment of glory when they meet Desi Arnaz, who gives them a walk-on role in I Love Lucy as his Cuban cousins.

If the brothers’ fame was short-lived, the novel about them went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the first awarded to a U.S. Hispanic. It spawned an indifferent movie starring Antonio Banderas (with a ridiculous Spanish accent) but catapulted Hijuelos to international success, with such honors as the Rome Prize and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Now, twenty years and five novels later, Hijuelos returns to the world of the Mambo Kings with Beautiful Maria of My Soul.

It’s the title of the song dedicated by Nestor to the woman who so tormented him, a beautiful showgirl named Maria. We meet her as a naïve girl from Pinar del Rio, the Cuba’s rugged tobacco country. Like many another guajira, she comes to the Havana and enters its steamy world of strip joints and cabarets. Even in a city of beautiful women, Maria stands out, receiving countless piropos as well as marriage proposals. But one night after her gig in the Club Nocturne she’s harassed by a drunken American tourist. Her honor is saved by a suave gangster named Ignacio Fuentes who makes her his mistress.

While the mercurial Ignacio helps her career, he occasionally beats her. After one such fight, Maria falls in love with the gentle, moonstruck Nestor Castillo. Here the two novels converge, but we hear Maria’s side of the story. As she describes him,

Oh, it was all so very poetic, like something out of a bolero. And Nestor could have stepped out of a bolero as well. His outlandishly handsome features…his dark eyes, which glanced at her from time to time, and the slightest of smiles that crossed his mouth now and then, but shyly, as if there was something unmanly about smiling, gave him a tragic air.

But Maria is practical enough to know that the romantic musician can’t support her, and doesn’t accompany him to New York. She later returns to Ignacio, with whom she has a daughter. When Ignacio is executed by Castro’s henchmen, the now matronly Maria leaves for Miami to begin a new life, like many another Cuban exile.

Fans of the first novel will find reading this one like seeing an old friend. But while the former recounts the brothers’ life in New York, the latter evokes the pre-revolutionary Havana they left behind. It’s a lost world of elegant nightclubs like the Tropicana, of swank casinos like the Capri, of gorgeous mulatas with plunging necklines and shady characters in white linen suits and Panama hats.

Hijuelos himself, who remains soft-spoken and affable despite his well-deserved success, once noted his admiration for Hemingway, saying that if you want to build a cabinet, you should study a master cabinet maker. Young writers would do well to examine the furniture in Beautiful Maria of My Soul.