Even after death Oscar Hijuelos keeps returning to Cuba in his fiction. Born in New York to Cuban parents, Hijuelos published his first novel, Our House in the Last World, in 1983, a story of Cuban immigrants which, like many debut novels, drew from autobiographical elements (he would publish an autobiography, Thoughts without Cigarettes, in 2011). His second book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) became a bestseller, earned him the Pulitzer Prize, was adapted as a major motion picture and catapulted him into fame and, much to his surprise, affluence. In that novel too the protagonists are Cuban immigrants.
Yet Hijuelos, who died in 2013, was removed from the Cuban-American mainstream. His family members were not exiles, and he belonged to New York, not Miami, never mind Havana. He had lost the Spanish he had learned as a child. And he was chided, by this reviewer among others, for his ignorance of Cuba’s literary tradition.
But Hijuelos was determined. He learned Spanish. He read voraciously. He immersed himself in the island’s literature with the same zeal that led to the detailed account of its music in Mambo Kings. In 2006 Hijuelos and his wife, Lori Carlson, published an anthology of contemporary Cuban poetry, identifying and celebrating “Cubanness.” By sheer will power Hijuelos clothed himself in identity.
Yet, he refused the exoticism forced on minority writers. Even as he delved vigorously into Cuban and Latino cultures, Hijuelos remained a writer, period. If one were pushed to define him geographically, one would have to say that Oscar Hijuelos was a New York writer. And though his posthumous novel Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise takes his characters to Cuba, they are historical figures: Henry Stanley, the famous explorer of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” African fame, and Mark Twain.
The most important protagonist is Stanley, for whom identity is a floating signifier. He was born in Wales, and poverty sets him on a life that begins as a picaresque novel: His first adventures spring from the need to live by his wits. In America he will know that haven for pícaros, New Orleans, and he will join, sequentially, the opposing armies of the Civil War. Discarded by his Welsh mother, he finds a new parent figure in New Orleans in the person of a merchant named Stanley, whose surname he takes. As a young man on a riverboat he meets and strikes up a friendship with Samuel Clemens, who has yet to become Mark Twain, and when their paths cross again the two travel to Cuba, where Stanley hopes to find the “father” who took him in but never formally adopted him. There, Stanley and Twain have their share of adventures, including a narrow escape from bandits.
With time both men become famous: Stanley as an explorer in Africa, at the service of King Leopold of Belgium, ruler of the Congo; and Twain as America’s superstar writer. A number of what today we would call celebrities enters their social circles, and the two friends’ lives continue to crisscross.
The revelation of the atrocities committed in the Congo, where Stanley served the Belgian crown — graphically and horrifically described in Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel The Celt’s Dream — taint Stanley’s reputation. There are romances, séances, political campaigns and personal as well as professional losses in this masterful, sweeping novel that traces Stanley’s whole life and most of Twain’s, two of the fullest of the waning century.
Their stories, which at times become one story, are told largely through letter and diaries, fictive devices as old as the novel genre itself. And the lovingly detailed descriptions of homes and other settings, like 19th century New Orleans and Havana, come from the toolbox of realist narrative. Hijuelos appears to be an old-fashioned realist, moved neither by his discovery of Latin American magical realism nor by the literary hijinks of his mentor, Donald Barthelme.
The novel features an afterword by Hijuelos’ widow, author Carlson, which indicates how much of this fiction posing as biographical account is just that — fiction. She writes, “all of the writing is Oscar’s, which is to say that — in addition to the narrative — the letter excerpts, diary entries, speeches and pronouncements in these pages are imagined and created by Hijuelos.”
And within these imaginary writings we have Twain negating the veracity of Stanley’s account of their fictional Cuban experience, a journey that only exists as “imagined and created by Hijuelos,” for the two friends never traveled to Cuba together. This game of mirrors — a fictional character critiquing the accuracy of an earlier account of the fiction in which the character is embedded — hails back to at least Cervantes. It strips realist narrative of its disguise as history or biography, and the reader of the complacency cushioned by fiction’s disguises. It serves Hijuelos well in this book written before and published after he entered the hereafter.
Enrique Fernandez is the author of “Cortadito: My Wanderings Through Cuba's Mutilated yet Resilient Cuisine.”
Who: Lori Marie Carlson Hijuelos, Mirta Ojito, Arturo O’Farrill and Ana Veciana-Suarez
When: 5 p.m. Nov. 21
Where: Auditorium, Miami-Dade College; www.miamibookfair.com
Cost: Panel is free; admission to street fair $8 for adults; $5 13-18 and over 62; 12 and under free.