A few months ago, when he visited Cuba for the second and last time, Oscar Hijuelos and I at last met personally. I specify personally because, as is easy to imagine, I had known the writer Oscar Hijuelos for many years, ever since I read his famous and prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love; 1989 Pulitzer Prize, a knowledge I acquired in depth with the reading of what some consider his most important work, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien, his 1992 novel. What is less easy to imagine is that Oscar also knew me, the same way that I knew him, as I was able to discover one day in which, thanks to an interview he did for the magazine Browse (August 2011), when asked which five books of recent Cuban narrative he would recommend he opened his list with my novel Mäscaras (Havana Red), with commendations that mentioned my previous and later works – and which I will not repeat on this occasion, but for which I will infinitely thank him.
Based on that purely literary link, a current of empathy started being created and an exchange of messages that had its best moment when Oscar told he was returning to Cuba (his first time was in 2002) and that one of his objectives was to meet me and speak with me….
The night of our Havana meeting was placid, cool, with good food and drinks. We crossed all of Old Havana seeking the restaurant that someone had recommended him and, while we spoke and dined, Oscar asked me about everything, with a curiosity between guilt and voraciousness, since he knew he had to know more about Cuba and needed to do so: though he had been born in New York, he wrote in English and moved around in the English-speaking literary world, his closest origin was on the island of birth of his parents and their undying nostalgias.
His most curious requests in search of certain evanescent Cuban essences was that I forget that his Spanish was not perfect, since he wanted me to speak to him all the time in “Havanan,” a demand I was barely able to meet because I was afraid that the intricate vocabulary of the people of Havana of today would be too cryptic for his ears. When we bade farewell, as is usual among writers, we exchanged books: he gave me a copy of the Spanish edition of his most recent novel, Bella María de mi alma (Beautiful María of My Soul), a sequel of his famous Mambo Kings…, and I handed him a copy of El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs)…. And we decided that we would meet again in New York when I travelled to that city to present the U.S. edition of my novel.
A few weeks later, Oscar wrote to me. He had read my novel and he made two petitions. The first, to interview me for the magazine Boom, one of the most renowned literary magazines of the U.S. East Coast…and a second that filled me with pride: he wanted, if possible, to participate as a presenter in some promotion ceremony for the book that had caused in him so many political concerns and literary satisfactions – according to his words. Of course, I accepted both petitions, we made the interview and, in each email we crossed, we ratified the intention of meeting in New York.
Later, an efficient and hardworking Cuban editor, Jorge Luis Rodríguez, who found out about my relationship with Hijuelos, asked me to serve as a bridge to concretise an act of poetic justice: to publish in Cuba some of Oscar’s novels, since his work is practically unknown to the island’s readers. From that moment on I saw myself involved in arduous negotiations since Jorge Luis’s only condition to publish one of his books in Cuba was that…he not be charged for the rights. Because our tireless editor could get the permission for the circulation in Cuba of Hijuelos’s novels, he could even get the paper to do so, but his budget was not enough for the payment of rights (which Oscar was willing to cede if his agent allowed him) or for the already existing translation, which is why his aim was to retranslate them in Cuba and…possibly improve them in their Spanish expression with the Cubanisms and turns most appropriate to the spirit of his characters and the island’s scenarios.
That is why, last October 15, when several friends who knew about my relationship with Oscar Hijuelos read before I did the press agencies to inform me of the absurd death of the writer at the age of 62, on a tennis court, I felt I had lost a colleague who, even in these times of cholera and so many mean things among writers, seemed he could get to be a good friend.
Making known Oscar Hijuelos’s literature in Cuba is one of the most exultant pending subjects of the meagre Cuban publishing panorama. Born in New York (1951) of Cuban parents from the island’s eastern region, Oscar Hijuelos established a peculiar relationship with Cuban culture. Though he is usually identified under the label of “Cuban-American” writer, actually his case is much more that of a U.S. author who, as such, wrote all his work in English, based on Anglo culture, though he resorted with obsessive frequency to Cuban characters, stories, landscapes as essential components of his works.
While his relationship with the real and present-day Cuba was cautious, his closeness and curiosity about the island’s literature kept him up to date on what was happening in the homeland of his parents who had imbued in his memory so many myths. Not very given to political opinions, he took relative distance from the Cuban-U.S. conflict and he focused on the artistic and human essential of a deep cultural relation that was part of his own life and intellectual experience. That is why he wrote about Cuban musicians, singers, émigrés established in the United States and he constructed a romantic image of Cuba which he filled with the inaccuracy of nostalgia and distance, but close to the love and sense of belonging inculcated by his parents. That is, he wrote based on his own circumstance and cultural formation of a man with an indelible origin, born, brought up and formed academically in another cultural atmosphere. From that conflictive relationship emerged the peculiar world of Oscar Hijuelos, the very character of his work, in which the elements of his two cultures, the ancestral and the lived, conferred on him a tense, irresolute artistic and cultural personality, in formation and expansion.
And it was with that spirit of the émigré, of the transplanted, of the seeker of the future who cannot rid himself of nostalgias and evocations, that Oscar Hijuelos won everything as a writer. He was, as has been said so many times these days, the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer Prize for novel, thanks to his Mambo Kings…. He also won prizes like The Latino Book Award, The International Latino Award and The National Hispanic Heritage Award (the same year that Anthony Quinn got it)…because being much more American than Cuban, his condition of Hispanic was rightfully indelible because of his quality as a member of a first generation of Americans of Hispanic origin. And from that peculiarity he left us stories full of music, colour, nostalgia, ardent love and tearful lack of love, which in a strict sense belong to the conception of the world of an American, but in the deepest cultural sense form part of that dramatic hybrid that lives in the soul of a man of two cultures…. That is why I am confident that after his death (anticipated, absurd), Oscar was received by the Castillo brothers, and with their maracas and trumpets, dressed in white linen suits, the mythical mambo kings interpreted for him their most famous and heartfelt love song: “Beautiful María of my soul.” (2013)
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