Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Achy Obejas, Ruins.

NY: Akashic Books, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1-933354-69-9

Michael Sedano

As February wrapped up, Lisa Alvarado profiled Achy Obejas. Then, a few weeks later, what should fall before my eyes but Obejas' newly published novel of Havana, Ruins.

When I think back on Achy Obejas’ love poem to Cuba, Ruins, I feel compelled to remember Shakespeare’s “Bare ruined choirs” sonnet, with its closing line, “to love that well, that thou must leave ere long”. Cuba in fourteen lines.

Ruins is a 205 page novel, not a poem. But author Achy Obejas clearly wears her heart on her sleeve in writing about the lives of everyday gente in a Havana slum during 1994’s “Special Period” that nearly brings Cuba to ruin, and that “ends” when the government permits people to leave the island by any means necessary.

Although set against a backdrop of a nation’s slow starvation and material deprivation by its own government, politics is not involved in this absorbing story. Obejas’ focus is neighborhood life, of shantytown construction, bureaucratic indifference, shortages of all kinds, everyday black marketeering.

In a universe of ordinary privation, some people build rafts and take off, joining generations of names who left in earlier times. Other people buy or bully their way into small comforts and luxuries. A small number of people unconditionally subscribe to revolutionary purity, accepting privation as something to be equally shared by all. These are the people like Obejas’ central character, Usnavy Martín-Leyva, who seem to get more than their share of crap.

Ordinary privation requires stoic fortitude, or extraordinary measures. Usnavy refuses the latter with a moral indignation that blows up in his face when he discovers his wife and a neighbor woman soaking sheets of felt in spices and water to sell as meat to customers who will choose to believe the obvious sham. Authenticity is a running theme in the story; not just meat but antiques, cars, irons, and being truly Cuban.

Usnavy’s only failure of revolutionary purity comes from noble motives. He works in a government bodega and is supposed to distribute materials equally, first-come. But he bends the rules, hoarding food supplies for invalids and aged who shuffle into the warehouse store long after the fit and able-bodied have queued up looking for a little extra.

When circumstances and opportunity lead Usnavy to dip into the bodega’s supplies to help a childhood pal build a raft that floats to Miami, Usnavy’s shattered moral rectitude can no longer prevent his own pursuit of the dollar. The bigger his roll grows, the greater his neighbors admire him. Odd. Prior to his newly earned wealth—a delicious plot involving Tiffany glass and the book’s title—the rap on Usnavy is he is all salao. Escaping this sobriquet, and its imputed truth becomes a focus for much of Usnavy’s dealings. He is bound and determined to prove his dominoes-playing socios wrong. When he finally gains an upper hand on those guys, it’s as false a victory as the warmth expressed by the transgender son of an old pal. More authenticity theme play here, readers will enjoy it.

Usnavy’s story ends on an unhappy note, but not owing to his dollars. Despite his money, he’s been right all along. A person’s fate doesn’t reside where his boat lands but in his character. Once the moral dam has broken, Usnavy figures out a method for digging for dollars in collapsed buildings. He follows weather reports to be two hours ahead of the rain, then listens as the groans of collapsing timbers send residents fleeing but Usnavy forward. Digging the rubble to retrieve valuable salvage brings dollars, a big roll of them. If you have the dollars you have good shoes. That doesn’t prevent a person from being salao, and this is Usnavy’s final irony.

This is the same Havana found in similar novels of Cuba written from a United States base. Every such novel, it seems, has a highly literate character, sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, strong enough to resist temptations and advantage. Despite their outward support of the Revolution, literary Cubanos all wait for that magic moment they can cheer and applaud the fall of the dictatorship. For now, their admiration for Fidel comes with ritual overtones, the gente make jokes at his expense with practiced casualness. Obejas’ world sidles up on the jinetera subculture that occupies such novels as Havana Bay, Adios Muchachos, and Havana Lunar, but avoid the street, pursuing where such people come from. Usnavy’s fourteen year old daughter, for example, has grown to a perilous age in a dangerous place, her parents fear, something Obejas elects to keep ambiguous.

There’s a close kinship between Ruins and Havana Lunar. Akashic Books published them both recently. Both novels deserve a good reading, in tandem, they go so well together. Both take place during the same time period, with overlapping events—inescapably. Boat people, rafters, floaters, privation. There are other similarities; both, for example, mention the ersatz meat product, a textile sandwich. While Havana Lunar is a mystery with picaresque undertones, Ruins is sentimental novel of place and character. Given a spate of slow titles in recent weeks, it’s been two great weeks in a row. 


With the idea of gathering stories, poems, memories, meditations and ruminations, the public is invited to send the BBF reflections, stories and artwork that reflect on the number 15. For example:

* 15 Reasons to Live in Peace
* 15 Favorite Books
* 15 Favorite Meals
* 15 Sacred Memories
* 15 Reasons to Love the Desert
* 15 Lessons I’ve Learned In My Life
* 15 Favorite Sayings or Dichos
* When I was 15. . .

We will gather the 15s as we move toward our 15th annual Border Book Festival in April 2009. We will share these lists and stories with you at the festival. So, put on your thinking caps, and reflect on the 15s!

Sounds like another great festival. But what really caught my eye is the festival's auction of a Diego Rivera lithograph:

The BBF will be selling a signed Diego Rivera print, The Fruits of Labor/Los Frutos del Trabajo during the festival. The lithograph was donated by an anonymous donor and is numbered #49 of #100. For more information on the lithograph or the Silent Auction donation, contact the festival.

To get the details on your 15 reasons, or para mayor info click

That's the buey it is, the final Tuesday of March, 2009, a day like any other day, except You are here.


Orale, if you'd like to share an observation on the above, please click the Comments counter below. La Bloga welcomes guest columnists when you have a review of book, arts, or cultural event, or an extended response to a La Bloga column. Click here with your idea for a guest column.

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