What I really love about blogging is the way it has introduced me to so many books I would never have thought to pick up. Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban is the kind of novel I never used to read because its cultural setting would have been too exotic for me, too beyond the frames of my own reference, or so I would have considered. In fact, this turned out to be completely true: the strangeness and the beauty of the narrative both stem from the vividly different cultural imagination that informs them, and I found this to be a source of fascination and interest. The main female protagonists were so alien to me, perceived things so differently, approached relationships so differently, grasped desperately after such different desires, that I found myself pausing midway through the story to try to get my bearings.
This is a matriarchal story, tracing the history of a family and a culture down through it’s female line, from Celia, the grandmother whose passion for the politics of Fidel Castro causes much tension with her daughters, the rageful Lourdes who embraces capitalist America with her bakery in Brooklyn and the deeply disturbed Felicia, whose hallucinatory journey through life in search of love often has murderous consequences for those who offer it to her. Lourdes has a daughter, Pilar, whose subversive spirit seems to carry the burden of the narrative’s optimism. Can Pilar break away from her genetic and her cultural history to make something of her life and find some happiness? For all the faults and flaws that trouble the female lineage here, it seems that the male one is even worse. Men come off very badly in this novel, being deserters, rapists, aggressors, philanderers. Rather than strength they indulge themselves in violence, rather than tenderness they become weak and idle. The imbalance between the sexes and the damage they inflict on each other seemed to me to be in keeping with a cultural situation of poverty, instability and pessimism. It’s a crazy world in Cuba, a society permanently trembling on the brink of violence with a kind of kangaroo court set up to deal with civilian problems of infidelity, petty thievery, counterrevolutionary activities. There’s nowhere to go where the personal isn’t political, where oppression and uncertainty don’t seep into every nook and cranny of private life. The women who have lived in Cuba have all suffered terrible trauma of one kind or another at the hands of men, and so it’s not surprising that they are terrible mothers, too wounded to take care of their children, too angry and confused to guide them, and no surprise either that the supernatural dimension of this story, the appearance of ghosts and the communication by dreams, holds out pockets of hope and optimism for the characters, rather than the fear it generally inspires in European stories. Power, corrupted, tainted and abused, tends to metamorphose in surprising ways.
It’s not enough, however, to prevent the mentality of the characters from veering between hopeless submission to imprisonment, and desperate attempts at escape. Celia has invested deeply in Communism as an answer to her society’s problems and clings to it without being able to see its problems or communicate its advantages to her daughters. Lourdes has run away to America and embraces the market place, but the way she treats others is locked in a pattern of dictatorship. Her intrusions into her daughters life are unforgiveable (although Pilar, unfazed by this behaviour manages to remain ambivalent about her mother, feeling equal amounts of love and hatred). Felicia, meanwhile, is perhaps the most dangerous of all, her fugues into romance and madness and spirituality being almost indistinguishable from one another in terms of their severe consequences. What these women long for is change, proper, manageable, salvationary change, but their souls are too steeped in their country’s political problems to achieve it. What they look for is change from outside, when it’s the quiet change within that could really save them. Recognising their eccentricities, dealing with their anger and healing their wounds are options from another time and another place, and not available to them. Pilar, the granddaughter, remains the most hopeful character because she possesses enough self-awareness and enough revolutionary spirit to make a difference to her life. And she has art on her side, which has ever been the way people have managed to see around the corners of their society and imagine something better.
I found this to be a rich and intriguing book, exotic, vividly described, disturbing in places and frustrating in others but never less than interesting. I really got into it, as you can probably tell! Thanks to the Slaves for another great read.
Cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda.