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Midnight Rumba: Novel Paperback – April 15, 2013
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From Kirkus Reviews
In Santiago’s (Tomorrow They Will Kiss, 2006) masterful novel, a daughter dedicates her life to reuniting with her father in 1950s Cuba during the revolution. Cuba is the true star of his novel, which takes place during the vulnerable period just before Fidel Castro’s uprising; each of Santiago’s characters has a different take and level of involvement in the fate of their country. The story begins with a traveling dance troupe on a circuit through the country’s eastern provinces. Estelita de la Cruz is forced to create a new life after her father, a drunken, fading rumba performer, is taken to an asylum. She and Aspirrina, the brash modern dancer of the troupe, flee to Havana. Soon after their arrival, Estelita receives great recognition for her beauty and natural stage talent, which lands her a starring role in a casino production. She soon becomes more ambitious and severs her ties to Aspirrina to pursue greater success; in doing so, she allows Aspirrina to realize her own dream of dedicating herself to the revolution: “Fidel was her saint, her imaginary lover.” Estelita revels in her newfound independence and falls in love, and her lover finds himself politically obligated to the forces opposing the revolution. As the people whom Estelita loves fight for Cuba, she sets her sights on fame, love, security and reconciliation with her father—but her future is tied to her city’s tribulations. Santiago’s prose style is intricate, and his descriptions of Cuba and its inhabitants are as vivid as hallucinations (“In yards full of flowering shrubs and fruit trees, honey-haired children played, shouting at each other in a foreign language”). The diversity of his characters is astounding, and he has an amazing talent for capturing the women’s strengths and vulnerabilities. He provides rich histories for his main cast, and readers will feel nothing but sympathy for their plights. A historically sound, sublimely heartbreaking novel about the soul of the Cuban revolution.
"A historically sound, sublimely heartbreaking novel about the soul of the Cuban revolution."
Top customer reviews
MIDNIGHT RUMBA must have taken a lot of "blood" to create. In my opinion, the writing in this novel is even stronger than it was in his magnificent TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS. Perhaps this is because the artist is more mature, more confident. Or maybe it's because the subject--the violent upheaval in Cuba when Fidel Castro and his rebels overthrew the Batista regime in the 1950s--simply demanded a certain degree of artistic brutality in order to tell the story.
The tropical island of Cuba--"emerald alligator asleep in a sapphire sea"--is the real protagonist of this novel, with its explosive chapter of history mirroring the lives of a beautiful young woman, Estelita de la Cruz, her father, her friends, and the man she loves.
One of Santiago's greatest strengths as a writer, in my opinion, is his remarkable understanding of women and his ability to create deep, complex and finely nuanced female characters. Many women writers understand women: consider the emotional richness and complexity of Scarlett O'Hara, Jane Eyre, Rachel Sangaletti, Celie Johnson, Shug Avery, Jo March, Catherine Earnshaw, and the second Mrs. de Winter, and on and on--the list is endless.
But in my opinion, the list of male writers who truly understand women is short. Eduardo Santiago (Estelita de la Cruz, Aspirrina Cerrogordo), Gabriel García Márquez (Fermina Daza), and D. H. Lawrence (Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen) are surely on that list. (But if you are going to include Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne on a list of literary characters crafted true to the heart and soul of a woman, then you and I have had it.)
Evoking human feelings is Santiago's great gift, and we see it throughout everything he writes. We know how Estelita felt as she "looked at her face before applying fresh makeup and wondered if there was anything new in the mirror. Did she seem different? She peered closely into her eyes, and she saw it. Yes, way in the back, in a place no one could see, was a woman who'd just made love for the first time."
We empathize with Delfino as he pleads with his wealthy father to help rescue a friend arrested by Batista's men:
"`Son,' [Delfino's father] said, standing up, `there's nothing anyone can do. Your friend is dead.'
"Delfino stood up to leave but something was missing. He felt as if everything beneath his neck was gone. He knew he had a face, because he was looking at his father, who was moving quickly about the room. And he knew he had legs, because he was still standing. But where his heart should be, his guts, his lungs, all of that was missing."
Violence erupts across Cuba, where "Bodies of men hung from trees. Groups of women gathered around them, wailing and shrieking with escalating abandon, as if their very souls had been set afire."
And in Estelita's beloved Havana, "Squares of light streamed from vacant windows, embroidering the streets with luminous geometric patterns that followed one another, stretching on and on into infinite darkness. Soft shadows borne of the dim streetlamps extended along the cracked pavement, folding and dipping, molding themselves onto the terrain, wrapping around trees, creeping through gutters and dipping into watery, quivering potholes, elongating into the distance, pointing the way, offering vain direction like enormous, cautioning fingers."
The description of torture that awaited Cubans captured by Ventura Novo, "the killer from Havana's Fifth Precinct, as famous for his massacres as for his stylish suits," was too horrifying for me to read. I had to skip that part.
Eduardo Santiago is a kind and generous man, and I object to seeing him cast in any other light. I do believe the majority of Amazon book reviewers are objective and truthful in relating their opinions of a book, and I applaud Amazon's policy of full disclosure (including negative reviews along with the good ones) in the interest of better customer service. Short of slander, I would like to suggest that the negatives may help us distinguish between thoughtful review and pure spite. As an example, the jealousy and spitefulness of a reviewer who follows this author like a puppy--nipping at the heels of its master--should be glaringly obvious to the rest of us.
However, I don't believe in shutting people up. I think the dissonance sharpens our awareness, and when someone writes for no other reason than to express jealousy and spitefulness, most of us can see such a review for what it is and disregard it.
I agree with reviewers who found the need for further line editing a distraction, but for me, it was a relatively minor one in an otherwise fine work of art. Anyway, I read somewhere that later editions had been corrected.
Santiago is a visual artist--to read the book is to see the film. Except that in the film, the rumba, the actual dance, will surely be featured much more prominently than it is in the book. The rumba is visually so compelling that it would simply have to be. However, it's nearly impossible to capture dance in prose, and except for short passages describing dances by Aspirrina, Santiago, wisely, did not attempt it. (By the way, if you aren't familiar with the rumba, may I respectfully suggest that you go to Bing or YouTube and catch some videos of professionals or contest competitors performing this remarkable dance.)
In my review of TOMORROW THEY WILL KISS, I said that Eduardo Santiago, in my opinion, eventually will win the Pulitzer prize for distinguished fiction by an American author. After reading MIDNIGHT RUMBA, I'm more convinced of that than ever.
If you enjoy the work of Márquez and Hijuelos, you will surely welcome Santiago's novels. For those of us who have little understanding of Cuban culture, after reading the work of Eduardo Santiago, we will have so much more.
That is one of Santiago's great gifts to his readers, and I am deeply grateful for it.
But this first-rate novel turned out to be much more than a history lesson. Within a few pages, I was captivated by Santiago’s finely drawn characters—and there are plenty of them! This highly cinematic novel employs an “ensemble cast” of characters, that provide the reader an opportunity to see 50’s Cuba through a myriad of disparate viewpoints.
Many novelists do a good job of creating a three-dimensional protagonist, but surround him or her with minor characters that are flat. Santiago’s greatest achievement here is that he breathes life into every character, most of whom experience profound arcs. He seems equally comfortable giving voice to male or female, child or adult. This rare ability he shares with some of the greats, such as Dostoyevsky and Joyce.
An even better comparison is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who shares Santiago’s affinity for an expansive, epic tale. Rumba gives you a chance to really get to know these people and their world. Now that I’ve finished it, I miss them. I would love to see what happens to their lives under Castro! But whatever Santiago chooses to write about next, I’ll be there.
All Art can be dangerous but the theatrical arts can be especially subversive, often in unpredictable ways, and on that shaky plywood stage more than one star will be born. Esteban's daughter, the beautiful Estelita will find herself in Havana, a budding starlet and Casino Show Girl on the eve of the Revolution. Havana's casinos are the 50s equivalent of the Roman circuses, kept running and making a profit by Meyer Lansky and the American Mob, but the fall of an empire is inevitable and everyone is a potential insurrectionist - from the shoe shine boy Juan Carlos to Leonardo Delfino who designs the elaborately fantastical headdresses of the show girls and the hats of society ladies. Even the nuns can't be trusted, and in Cuba, nuns are like the sacred cows of India, they can go anywhere with impunity. And then there's Aspirrina, a big ungainly girl whose inspiration is Isadora Duncan. A member of Sabrosuras, Aspirrina is the biggest rebel of them all; there are few things more lethal than a dancer with no talent and a terrible temper, and Aspirrina's dreams and desires are much too big for any ordinary stage.
"Midnight Rumba" is a rich and vibrant historical drama with glittering sets and costumes and music and dance numbers and a huge cast, from real stars of the era to Mexican wrestlers, entertainers and manipulators and artists of all persuasions, from Pablo Picasso to Castro, and Meyer Lansky to La Lupe, the Queen of Latin Soul. Like all good dramas, there's an urgency propelling us to the final scene. "Detras, nada, delante, todo," as one character expresses it: Behind us nothing, ahead of us everything. It is the motivation behind all creative and destructive acts, of course - that we can't look back, we have to look forward, past the empty page or canvas or stage, past the performance of the night before - a sense that we are being swept along by a force bigger than the past, more than what has ever been.
A midnight rumba is dancing in the dark, as Bruce Springstein once sang, and "you can't start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart." You have to be a gun for hire, hungry from the start. Eduardo Santiago's "Midnight Rumba" is a passionate telling of that great and awful truth. You can't start a revolution unless you can let go of the past, and let your heart be broken, and risk everything. You have to be willing to dance, even if it's in the dark.
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Want in on some good reading, some history and the real side of Cuba? Then check out Midnight Rumba by Eduardo Santiago.Read more