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Ruins Paperback – March 1, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
In 1994 Havana, times are hard: for maladroitly named Usnavy and his family, home is one windowless, sparsely furnished room, and rationing is so tight that pieces of a blanket... beaten and marinated in spices and a little beef broth pass for sandwich meat. When not managing the local bodega or playing dominoes with childhood friends, earnest Usnavy tries to keep his out-of-work wife and 14-year-old daughter from despair and disillusionment. His one treasure, as precious as his mother's legacy, is a most extraordinary lamp… of multicolor stained glass and shaped like an oversized dome. Around this lamp (a genuine Tiffany?), poet and novelist Obejas spins a mystery with political ramifications. Keeping within the tight frame of Usnavy's day-to-day life, Obejas confronts the ruin of Cuba; the fate of those who escape to the States, and those who remain; and broad issues of religious and sexual identity. With the deft and evocative detail of a poet's, Obejas's prose is as illuminating and honest as her struggling protagonist. (Mar.)
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*Starred Review* A fatherless child named in honor of the big U.S. Navy ships in Guantánamo Bay, Usnavy, weary and destitute at 54 in 1994, still believes fervently in Cuba’s Communist mission even though his neighbors are fleeing to the U.S. under the cover of darkness on anything that will float. Usnavy works, navigates state bureaucracy, plays dominos in the square with his ribald buddies, and basks in the radiance of his only treasure, an opulent, Tiffany-like stained-glass lamp. A rare object of beauty, an embodiment of light and transcendence, it links humble and honest Usnavy to a hidden facet of Cuban history, and to the freer world of creativity and its shadow side of greed and desperation, deception and secret justice. Following the substantial Days of Awe (2001), prizewinning, ever-innovative Cuban American writer Obejas evinces a new, focused lyricism as she penetrates to the very heart of the Cuban paradox in a story as pared down and intense as its narrator’s life. Inlaid with images of transformation, this Havana story in the Hemingway mode illuminates the tragedies and resiliency of a twilight land caught in the spell of a failed dream and portrays with exquisite sensitivity a man reaching toward the light. --Donna Seaman
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But Usnavy's life is very hard. He works every day at a bodega, fulfilling the ration cards of the people who line up for goods: "soap was scarce, coffee rare; no one could remember the last time there was meat. Sometimes all he had was rice, or worse, those detestable peas used to supplement beans, or when ground up, used as a coffee substitute." He lives in one room with his beloved wife and daughter, a room without windows and with a floor always wet with leaks. The communal bathroom of the tenement is found by the swarm of flies that envelop it, and with every rainfall the danger of the entire building collapsing threatens. Every day more and more Cubans take to the sea, escaping to America. When good friends leave, Usnavy becomes fearful that his own daughter will be next, drawn by the good fortunes of those who made it the ninety miles across the sea, and repelled by her father's own "salao", bad luck.
Usnavy owns a magnificent lamp, huge and glowing with varied colors of light from its many panels of decorative glass. Left to him as the only legacy from his mother, the lamp reminds Usnavy of all that is beautiful and possible in his world, and it connects him to the past, his mother and his Jamaican father (long ago disappeared at sea). But one day Usnavy makes a discovery that connects him and his lamp to the history of Cuba itself. Keeping the lamp and himself whole becomes a parable for the future of Cuba as Che dreamed of it: will the need for dollars overwhelm Usnavy or will the lifeblood of the lamp sustain him in his faith?
There are both incredible and quiet details in Ruins about daily life in Cuba: his daughter's dinner of a meat sandwich but it is only wool marinated in spices, "the texture of the wool had been transformed into what they all imagined steak was like, something tender and chewy"; Usnavy's three pairs of underwear, one to wear, one to wash while bathing, and one to keep ironed and folded in his small drawer; Usnavy's nightly domino games with his friends in the plaza; the constant shadow of the U.S., both in Cuban history (Hemingway and the U.S. love affair with everything Cuban), in products (the best appliances are U.S. made), and in politics (the embargo, of course, as well as the 1994 invasion of Haiti by the U.S.); young girls in lycra plying the streets at night for tourist dollars; outdoor dances and government parades; Socialist Committee-sponsored abuse of those Cubans waiting in line for visas to America; the constant gnaw of hunger; and Usnavy's long bike rides through the streets of Havana.
These details, woven around a compelling and surprising plot, make for a beautiful book. But this is much more than a great historical mystery set in Cuba or the compelling story of one man's spiritual conflict: this is a book that exposes the sufferings of the Cuban people, both before and after the Revolution. No matter what your politics, the book underscores both the brutality of life before Che and Castro (no romanticizing of the period when the Upper Classes lived like royalty and the lower classes were kept down like animals), and the sufferings and deprivations of life under Castro. Only misery and complete loss of hope could drive people numbering in the thousands to take to the sea in less than seaworthy crafts, braving ninety miles of sharks and storms, just to get away from Cuba.
Usnavy will never leave: he is in love with his country, bound up with its history, proud of its revolutionaries, and still holding hope for its future. Despite all that he suffers, we understand his attachment, it all makes sense as part and parcel of the man Obejas has created for us. Usnavy is a good man, he shares what little he has: "that was his way; whatever was available was for everyone equally. That was what he knew and understood." He is a quiet man with pleasure found in the riding of his bike, the playing of dominoes, watching the sea at night, and hearing the breathing of his wife and daughter while they sleep. He is the last man we would ever want to see hardened or bitter: his faith is too true, his needs so minimal, his efforts so sincere. He desires only to "die old and contented...in the soft dapple of a primal Antillean night."
This novel is an incredible affirmation of life and of the power of the survival instinct. We want Usnavy to find refuge from suffering and loss, and we fervently hope that he never sees himself betrayed by his Revolution but that he lives contented in a dream of it; that the huge lamp survives, its history and its power intact.
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they continue to believe in the Revolution. It is important to note how Government matters and can effect your life.
We have to be ever watchful.
I would give another book by the same author a try.
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