15 Years of Summer Reading
The Sweetest Sounds: Oscar Hijuelos's new novel, A Simple Habana Melody, is a lushly detailed song you can’t get out of your head.
All it takes is one sentence: "In the spring of 1947, when Israel Levis, composer of that most famous of rumbas 'Rosas Puras,' returned to Habana, Cuba, from Europe abroad the SS Fortuna, those of his old friends who had not seen him in more than a decade were startled by his appearance.” And with just those few words, Oscar Hijuelos draws you-deeply, inextricably-into his eloquently romantic and elegiac new novel, A Simple Habana Melody (From When the World Was Good). Though its hero is known as a composer of dance tunes and love songs, the book feels symphonic, even operatic, as it follows the epic sweep of Israel Levis's career-his privileged childhood, his early musical education, his flight from the repressive, murderous dictatorship that ruled Cuba in the 1930s, his long sojourn in Paris, and his eventual arrest (and deportation to Buchenwald) by the Nazis, who mistake the Catholic composer for a Jew. And underneath everything runs the melancholy refrain, the sweet strains of Levis's gentlemanly, unconsummated lifelong passion for the singer Rita Valladares, the inspiration for his most celebrated composition, “Rosas Puras." Hijuelos's generous novel offers plenty of dramatic events and rich historical detail. But ultimately what’s most memorable is its lyrical and meticulous depiction of its hero’s inner life: his super-stitiousness, his complex erotic attractions to both women and men, his devotion to his mother, his love for music and for his country, and, above all, the fervor of his religious devotion. The result is a book that keeps us enthralled, then lingers in our minds like the haunting notes of a song about longing and loss, hope and disappointment, suffering and salvation.