In "Morning," one of Pablo Neruda's best-known love sonnets, the speaker gushes, "Naked you are blue as a night in Cuba; /You've vines and stars in your hair." In one bold image Neruda expresses his passion for both a woman and a country. Such combinations are not unusual in Latin-American literature, perhaps because the juxtaposition of tropical settings and often unstable governments naturally parallels stories of intense but "star-crossed" love.
Two recent novels by Hispanic-American authors blend portraits of women-muses with reflections on their native cultures and families. "Beautiful Maria of My Soul"; by Oscar Hijuelos explores the life of Maria Garcia y Cifuentes, the Cuban dancer who inspired the iconic song of Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." "Say Her Name" by Francisco Goldman narrates the life of the author's wife, Aura Estrada, a brilliant, Mexican-born scholar and writer who died at age 30 after a bizarre body-surfing accident.
The majority of "Beautiful Maria" offers the protagonist as a comely stand-in for pre- and post-revolution Cuba. A gorgeous, illiterate guajira, or country girl, Maria learns about herself in relation to the surrounding land. As a girl, she discovers her rare beauty as she becomes aware of "just how thickly and deliberately sunlight moved across a field."
Hitching rides to Havana and working as a dancer, Maria inevitably toughens. But after a brawl with her gangster boyfriend, she';s not too jaded to fall for Nestor Castillo, a soulful young musician destined to immigrate to the United States and appear on "I Love Lucy"playing his song, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul." Their meeting — and inevitable parting—splits open the novel.
Hijuelos’ portrait of Maria is strongest when he focuses not on her ample beauty and magnetism, but her moments of calculation and hard-won practicality. In one of the book’s most intriguing scenes, Maria and her daughter have just finished burying Maria’s husband, a somewhat staid social worker. Wearing a dark veil, Maria tosses a rose on her husband’s coffin, makes a sign of the cross and blithely asks her daughter what she would like for lunch.
This ability to persevere, even if at the price of appearing cold, ultimately defines the older Maria. Teresa, her daughter, offers a more sympathetic presence than her luminary mother and readers may find themselves wanting Teresa to narrate her own book.
Francisco Goldman’s “Say My Name” blends the raw grief of a widower with the vibrant voice and presence of a worldly, young Mexican writer.
Goldman, author of several award-winning novels and the nonfiction book, “The Art of Political Murder,” about the 1998 assassination of Guatemala’s Bishop Gerardi, infuses his new book with disbelief. The author is bewildered by two things: first, his vivacious wife has died suddenly; and second, she married him in the first place given their nearly 20 years age difference. Goldman even mocks himself for the dazed way he responded to Aura during their four years together. In the photos from the couple’s wedding day in Mexico, the author says he looks as if he’d “just been miraculously cured of blindness, aiming my stretched Muppet grin all over the place.”
Unlike many books with May-December romances set in academia, “Say Her Name” takes on the more ambitious tasks of summoning Aura’s voice through excerpts of her fiction, academic nonfiction and diaries dating back to her Mexican girlhood. Readers accompany Goldman through Aura’s development from a curious daughter of a fiercely protective, single mother to an internationally savvy scholar and promising fiction writer. When Goldman intersperses sections of Aura’s work with his own, aphasic-like grief, the book reads a bit like Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her memoir of life with her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
The more difficult part of “Say Her Name” addresses the lasting antipathy between Goldman and Aura’s mother, Juanita. Goldman points out undeniable qualities of Juanita, who essentially raised her daughter alone and on a limited income during a politically turbulent time in Mexico, but he also highlights his mother-in-law’s resentment of him. Even before the couple married, Goldman says, Juanita was possessive of Aura. After her death, she literally blamed Goldman, whom she is said to have considered un ninote, a man-child. Despite the fact that Aura died not long after a completely random accident — breaking her neck while body-surfing and goofing around with Goldman and a cousin in the choppy waves of a Mexican beach — Juanita held Goldman responsible for not protecting her daughter. Juanita even filed a lawsuit against Goldman, which she eventually dropped. Despite the seeming absurdity of a lawsuit, Goldman admits to struggling with guilt himself: “This was how I’d brought her daughter back to her, the daughter she’d given away to me to protect in marriage, as I’d vowed to do.”
“Say Her Name” buzzes with the weight of the intense struggle for Aura’s memory between her husband and mother, even down to the possession of her ashes. Fortunately, Goldman offers a form of hope to the reader, if only to resurrect Aura’s memory through her words.
Carolyn Alessio is the recipient of a NEA fellowship in creative writing, and author of a bilingual anthology of Guatemalan children's writing, 'The Voices of Hope/Las Voces de la Esperanza.' She teaches English at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen.
"Say Her Name"
By Francisco Goldman
Grove Press, $24, 350 pages
"Beautiful Maria of My Soul"
By Oscar Hijuelos
Hyperion, $15.99, 340 pages (paperback)