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A Simple Habana Melody: (from when the world was good) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 28, 2002
The Amazon Book Review
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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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
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As he incorporates true great cuban composers (Moises Simons, Ernesto Lecuona, etc) into the very descriptive vignettes in the story lines you can almost sway to the Bolero and Rumba beat and hear the melodious voices of famous cuban singers as María Teresa Vera, Rita Montaner, Blanquita Amaro y Amelita Vargas; Also Israel is a prototype of Ernesto Lecuona with all his famous musical compositions in boleros, zarzuelas and danzas as he travels with his own band and is acclaimed throughout Europe and the Americas!
The story has its poignant moments as well, specially the pre WWII Parisian epoch, the take over of France by the Nazi's and the horrible concentration camps! His return to Havana 1947 and his encounter with a normal life he had left so many years before... Yet, at the end, Hijuelos truly weaves in a powerful and beautiful portrayal of the main character's last days. I was deeply moved to tears while reading those last ten pages of the novel - Oscar Hijuelos, thank you for such a magnificent novel!
The author has a beautiful way of looking into one man's life. In telling Levis' sad story, Hijuelos creates a character so real, one does not know if this person really existed or not. Levis' frailties and thoughts are so equisitely presented, you almost wish you could jump into the book and have a part in this man's life. Perhaps you could just talk to him and bring him the joy and fulfillment that he seems to be missing time after time. His solace is music. How comforting to know that a person who uses his talent to the best of his ability has the love of music to fall back on when other things in his life fail. The background of the story, a lively Habana in the early part of the twentieth century, is one that I was not familiar with so enjoyed learning about a different feel of life in Cuba from what I know about life in that country now.
Israel Levis is not Jewish. He is a devout Catholic from a wealthy Cuban family living in Paris whose name puts him in Buchenwald. Levis is something of an innocent genius, a large man who loves women (and possibly men), a composer of beloved popular songs who flees his island home for Europe when his lyricist and best friend is murdered by the Cuban government. He never stops longing for his home, but does not return until the end of the War, when both he and his country are much changed.
Hijuelos presents rich scenes from the musical theater of the 1920s and 30s, and uses Levis' celebrated tune "Rosas Puras" to show how Cuban music was embraced around the world. His scenes of Cuban homelife and friendship in the early 20th century radiate with warmth and nostalgia for a time when people were so important to one another. The composer's love for the wise, talented, and compassionate Rita Valladares, his love of his country and his art make him an entrancing character. This is a beautiful book.