Oscar Hijuelos's sixth novel, A Simple Habana Melody, is as much a love song to prewar Cuba as the "simple melody" at the center of the book. That tune, named "Roses Puras," was written by Hijuelos's protagonist, the aging composer Israel Levis, in the 1920s for his protégé and secret love, the singer Rita Valladares. The novel is set just after World War II, when Levis has returned to his childhood home in Havana after many years in Europe, at first in Paris, then in Buchenwald, where he was interned by Nazis who ignored the crucifix around his neck and focused only on his Sephardic name. The bittersweet feelings Levis bears toward "Rosas Puras" ("Beautiful Roses"), his best-known song, were further complicated when a German officer, who had gathered some musically gifted inmates for a concert, asked him to play this catchy old tune, unaware that Levis had written it. But this is not primarily a war novel; it is a novel of memory, a series of visits to the beautiful, vanished world of Levis's childhood and youth seen through the lens of his later suffering. Written with the same richness of detail, sensuality, and musicality of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, A Simple Habana Melody contains even greater emotional depth and narrative complexity. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry, Adorno famously, and wrongly, intoned. Hijuelos is after a milder, and seemingly more eccentric, moral conundrum: can there be, after Buchenwald, any more rumbas? The question is not as silly as it sounds at first - as Hijuelos points out, the rumba was the invention of a "lonely, begrieved slave" who "took up guitars and drums, and eventually created the rumba - a dance of a few closely held (chain-bound) steps..." The maker of rumbas at the center of this novel is Cuban musician Israel Levis, sent to Buchenwald in 1943. Hijuelos begins his story with Levis, now a thin, elderly-looking man, coming back to Habana in 1947, then leads up to the events that foreground that return. Brought up as a child prodigy in a good, upper-class family, Levis progresses from recitals of the classics to compositions soaked in the music of the street. In particular, Levis loves the zarzuela, a type of Cuban operetta in which rumbas prominently feature. "Rosas Puras," the most famous rumba of the '20s and '30s, was Levis's composition. He wrote it with his favorite lyricist, Manny Cortez, in the Campana Bar, for his favorite singer and the love of his life, Rita Valladores. Unfortunately for Levis, Cuba is ruled at this time by Geraldo Machado, a dictator, and Levis is eventually forced to leave his city because of Machado's harassment. He settles in Paris; takes a Jewish dance instructor, Sarah Rubinstein, as his lover; and collaborates on an opera with her brother, George, until the world falls down in 1940. While there is a faintly contrived air about Levis's experience of the Holocaust, Hijuelos triumphs in capturing the sights and sounds of Habana at the edge of modernity.
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