Book review: ‘Beautiful Maria of My Soul’ by Oscar Hijuelos
Pentimenti are the shadows of images covered over by later brushwork that sometimes emerge in old paintings. As all good Lillian Hellman fans know, the word derives from the Italian “pentirsi” — to repent — which suggests that the artist reconsidered an earlier choice.
It does nothing to undermine the warm, exuberant triumph that Oscar Hijuelos has achieved in his much-anticipated new novel, “Beautiful María of My Soul,” to say that it is a kind of pentimento on his hugely successful 1989 book, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.”
It’s been 20 years since that latter book — subsequently a film and Broadway musical — made Hijuelos an internationally bestselling writer and the first Latino American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Hijuelos, the American-born son of Cuban immigrants, grew up in Spanish Harlem, played guitar with Top 40 bands in the 1960s and earned a master’s in creative writing from the City University of New York. (He now teaches in the English department at Duke.)
“The Mambo Kings” recounts the story of two Cuban musicians — brothers César and Nestor Castillo — immigrants to New York at the height of the Latin dance craze. They work backbreaking day jobs and play in Cuban dance clubs at night. Back in Cuba, Nestor had fallen hopelessly in love with a beautiful dancer who ultimately throws him over for another man, a brutal but affluent businessman, Ignacio. Nestor nevertheless nurtures his undying love for her, which inspires a song, “Beautiful María of My Soul,” that he reworks 44 times until it becomes their band’s signature piece. Desi Arnaz hears them play it, strikes up a friendship and invites them to appear on “I Love Lucy.” Suddenly, the Mambo Kings are a hit — until tragedy strikes.
It takes a certain amount of nerve to revisit a novel so successful and compelling, but Hijuelos has nerves of steel and the skill to back them up. “Beautiful María” retells the “Mambo Kings” story through the eyes of María García y Cifuentes, “the lady behind a famous song.” We meet her as an illiterate peasant girl fresh from the provinces, so beautiful that she turns the head of every man she meets.
“If that mirror were a man,” Hijuelos writes of her before a looking glass, “it would have been salivating; if it were a carpet it would have taken flight; if it had been a pile of wood it would have burst into flame.”
In Havana, where she meets Nestor when he rescues her from a beating in an alley, she acquires street smarts and what she thinks is a kind of realism. It ultimately betrays her, when she elects to stay with her abusive but moneyed lover rather than Nestor.
The Cuban revolution, beautifully evoked here, intervenes, and María and her daughter Teresa find themselves in Miami. There, María finds life and, if not happiness, a kind of contentment with her Cuban lady friends and, most of all, in the pride she feels in her dutiful, serious daughter Teresa, who becomes every immigrant mother’s studious dream, a pediatrician. (María does despair, however, of ever teaching Latin dance to Teresa, who doesn’t particularly care for the Cuban music that is the soundtrack of her mother’s life.) While Teresa is working through her residency in New York City, María, the once-illiterate peasant girl who learned to read and write late in life, begins taking a poetry class at a local community college. The other students are fiftysomething Cuban American women and the instructor a Cuban immigrant. In their company, María moves wondrously from muse to the writer of verses that evoke the dancer who once made art with her body:
If Cuba were a man
He would be so handsome,
I’d faint in his arms.
He would smell so sweetly of flowers,
And of the rain at three o’clock.
He would, she writes, “speak deliciously like a song….” That brings her back to Nestor, whom she recalls one night as she sits alone at the kitchen table in Miami with the “the Frigidaire humming beside her and the GE radio turned low, just scribbling the words”:
Oh, Nestor, I have something
To tell you,
Even if what we had
Was long ago.
Without knowing it
I loved you,
And love you now,
Wherever you are…
So, believe me when I say
I just didn’t know.
At this point in the story, Hijuelos makes a daring authorial choice that, in hands less skilled, and, more important, less affectionate toward his characters, easily could read as another postmodern conceit. He introduces himself and “The Mambo Kings” into the narrative. Teresa, back living with her mother in Miami, reads the book and, realizing that her mother is the inspiration for “Beautiful María,” is horrified by the invasion of privacy and candid sexual portrayal. She consults a lawyer, weighs suing, then confronts the author when he comes to Miami for a reading. He agrees to apologize to María, though she doesn’t seem to require it since she rather likes the book (even though it’s “dirty”). Ultimately, she becomes a minor celebrity and, after the film premiere of “Mambo Kings,” she tells a television interviewer what Nestor Castillo was really like:
“‘When I met Nestor, on the street where I lived in Havana, he just reminded me of those pure souls I knew from my childhood, the kind of fellow who would never hurt anyone intentionally — he was a romantic sort, loved to sing to me, loved to dream aloud in my presence…. I knew no one else like him. He treated me as if I were made of gold, loved me as if there were no tomorrow — why I let him go to America without me, I cannot say. But he was the one, as the old songs say, who got away.”
Suffice to say that through the inadvertent good offices of the author/character Hijuelos, the last hanging thread of the “Mambo Kings” is rewoven into this reconsideration, and both María and her beloved Teresa avoid the tragedy that befell the Castillo brothers and find, each in her own way, unexpected happiness.
“Beautiful María of My Soul” can be read on its own, but you might want to enrich the experience by picking up the paperback reissue of “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” Read them in tandem and savor the mysterious power of a master’s pentimento.
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