Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Party: Communist Cuba

Finally...I fiiiiiinally read a book for the World Party Reading Challenge. The country assignment for May was a choice: any one with a Communist history, past or present. Well, I wasn't about to devote months of my time to old Russian literature, so I opted for Cuba with Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. I don't know much about Cuba beyond Castro, so, why not?

When I opened the book and saw a family tree before the first chapter even began, I knew I was in for some trouble. Oh god, how many people am I going to have to keep track of? Well the answer to that is about 5. No, include spouses; make that 9. No, 10. And include children. 15. 14? I lost count.

There's not much plot, just a set-up of the characters: Celia and Jorge are the head of the family tree. They have three kids—2 girls and a boy, but the boy we don't really hear from so much (unless I totally missed it). The two girls, Lourdes and Felicia, have their own husbands and kids and their own mess of issues. Sometime in the 1960s (I think?), Lourdes left Cuba for Brooklyn, NY, and Jorge eventually followed because of illness. So only Celia and Felicia (and the absent Javier) are left in Cuba. And Felicia is pretty crazy. Certifiably. Crazy as in, she sets fire to her first husband's face, burns a woman's scalp at a hairdresser, and throws another husband off a rollercoaster. She practices black magic; her kids think she's crazy and seek out their dad. Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Lourdes runs a bakery; her daughter Pilar is mostly Americanized and completely late-70s punk; and the two fight all the time.

The meat of the book lies in all these characters and their differences in relation to their homeland of Cuba...mostly their feelings toward the revolution. Celia is very pro-revolution; Lourdes is very anti-; Pilar just kinda rolls her eyes at the whole thing since she never had to live amidst it, and she'd rather just get back to Cuba to visit her grandmother. Aside from the key phrases about the Cuban revolution like "Castro" and "Communism" and "Cuban Missile Crisis," I don't know very much about it. In fact, Castro is never referred to by name—simply as "El Lidar"—and it took me a bit to realize that's who Garcia was referring to. While reading this, I felt like a needed a whole 20th century history lesson so I could understand the full social, political, economic context of it all (that's what Wikipedia is for). While Celia and Lourdes' characters focus a lot of Cuba's politics, Felicia's illustrates more of Cuba's culture—the religion, the spirituality, the relationship between men and women.

Celia is obviously the rock of this novel—rock in the sense that everything kinda radiates out from her. We learn the most about her through her present-day perspectives and a series of letters she wrote for decades to her lover of young adulthood. Between Celia and Pilar, we see two completely opposite representations of what it means to be Cuban from different generations and different lifestyles; every drop of Celia's blood is Cuban, while Pilar lives in American and can't figure out where she belongs.

Each section of the book contains a narrative focused on each family member—Celia, Felicia, Lourdes, Pilar—but sometimes they're told in first person by the character, sometimes told in third person from an omniscient voice. It takes a while to get a grasp on each individual, and I was well into the story before I could focus on what was happening, rather than the structure. I think if I read it again, I'd get more out of it.

I'm often intrigued by stories of multi-generational families, some of who immigrate. My story is pretty boring in comparison...generations of my family have been in one city and are still in one city (not that that's bad...I'm the lone drifter and sometimes I wish I was in that city). I don't have a very colorful palate of experience when it comes to culture shock. So to me, it's interesting to read about the differences between the generations of a family who has come from the same place, because the differences are based on their own experiences. It makes me feel all warm and worldly inside, which may just be the point of this reading challenge.


softdrink said...

Yay for you for a reading a book for the challenge! Boo to me for cancelling it!

J.T. Oldfield said...

So, would you recommend this one or no?

Kari said...

I don't know. I don't want to say read it or don't read it; you can make up your own mind about whether the premise intrigues you or not.