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A Simple Habana Melody: (from when the world was good) Hardcover – May 28, 2002

4.5 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (May 28, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060175699
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060175696
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,226,265 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There is something about the way Oscar Hijuelos writes that makes you nostalgic-not just for events he is describing, but for things in your own life. The "Mambo Kings" was one of these, and "A Simple Habana Melody" is another. Beautifully written, filled with appealing characters, he tells the tale filled with longing and joy, of love lost and found, and one unforgettable song.
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The writing in this novel about the musical career of a Cuban composer is itself lyrical. The narrative is prose that aspires to be, and is, both poetry and music. The phrasing and the flow of the syntax is melodious as the composer's experience, because of his name, in a Nazi concentration camp runs counterpoint to the theme. And "Rosas Puras", his most famous and enduring composition, reappears faithfully as a leitmotif throughout the narrative. El Gordito, Israel Levis, and his close relationships with Rita Valladares (singer), Manny Cortez (composer)and his family are full of tender and touching moments. He is simply a man on a quest to find the beauty of life, the music hidden just beneath its surface and awaiting his discovery of its simple melodies. His devotion to his music can be a demanding mistress whom he has no choice but to love with pure devotion and ultimately proves to be his salvation. Hijuelos reinforces his stature as one of America's most supremely talented writers in this sensuously rich and sonorous novel. The close of the book holds moments of heartbreaking tenderness without sentimentality. A Simple Habana Melody is original, germinal, mesmerizing and sung in a distinctive, if not unique, lyrical voice that could only be proffered by a truly gifted writer of the stature of Oscar Hijeulos.
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Format: Paperback
I loved THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE (a Pulitzer Prize winner), so when I saw A SIMPLE HABANA MELODY on a bargain sale table, I bought it immediately and I'm so glad I did. Oscar Hijuelos is better known for writing huge, exuberant, rambunctious books and they're wonderful, but A SIMPLE HABANA MELODY is different. It's melancholy and soulful and poignant and bittersweet. It really is a marvelous character study of Israel Levis and Israel Levis is a marvelous character.

Israel Levis, the protagonist of A SIMPLE HABANA MELODY is a man who contradicts every (mis)conception about the stereotypical "Latin lover"...except one. Levis was born in Havana in 1890, the son of a doctor with a definite Sephardic ancestor (Levis, however, is a devout Catholic). While still a pre-school child, it becomes obvious that Levis was a musical genius and before he's forty he writes more music than most composers do in a very long lifetime and he writes it with the ease with which other people write a grocery list.

Although Levis makes regular visits to Havana's brothels (A SIMPLE HABANA MELODY doesn't, however, contain the coarse sex scenes found in THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE), his "true love," a cinnamon-skinned, blue-eyed singer named Rita Valladores always seems a little out of reach to Levis, which makes this book all the more poignant and melancholy since Rita cares for Levis as well, or at least she would if he would give he the smallest indication of his affection.

It is Rita (and Levis's love for her) that inspires him, in 1928, to write "Rosas Puras," a rumba that becomes more popular than the Cuban national anthem. And, it's not only a hit in Cuba, it's a hit everywhere else as well.
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Format: Hardcover
What a wonderful find. This is the first book I have read by Oscar Hijuelos, but it certainly won't be the last. The character of Israel Levis is so real and "historical" that I found it almost impossible to believe he wasn't. The mixture of culture, history, and music is writing at its best. The complexity of Israel's character causes one to be revolted by him, feel sorrow for him, but at the same time admire him. His naive and optimistic outlook on life may cause him suffering, but shows an indefatigable core of goodness tempered by reality. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the human character.
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