I’m not sure I’m going to do justice to Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban for a couple of reasons, one of which is that while I’m slowly emerging from my reading funk I still don’t feel like I’m reading well, and the other is that I’m particularly tired this evening but I’m also not willing to put off writing this post any longer. So I’ll just have to make the best of things.
I did enjoy reading this book, and I’m happy that the Slaves of Golconda chose it because otherwise I doubt I would ever have picked it up. It’s a good read — an entertaining and smart novel about the intersection of family, politics, and religion. I’ll admit that I’m generally not fond of the kind of point of view switching that goes on in the novel — it shifts not only from character to character, which I have no problem with, but between first and third person, which does irritate me a bit — but
since having multiple voices speaking throughout the novel is so obviously important to Garcia, I can see why she chose to do it. Part of the point of the book is to get multiple perspectives; not only does the narrative focus shift from character to character, sometimes rapidly, but we see at least some of the characters from the inside, where they sometimes speak for themselves, as well as from the outside. Interspersed throughout the novel are one character’s letters as well, offering another perspective on the story. All this has the effect of capturing a great amount of complexity in relatively few pages (240 or so); the technique mimics the interconnectedness and the web of relationships it seeks to describe.
The story is about a Cuban family as it changes throughout the politically turbulent years of the mid-20C. At its heart is the matriarch Celia, a self-sufficient woman living on the Cuban coast who gets caught up in the furor of the revolution headed by Castro, who is never named but is a powerful presence in the novel. Her two daughters (she has a son as well but we don’t learn much about him) follow very different paths as adults; one of them, Lourdes, emigrates to the U.S. and becomes a proper American capitalist, working hard and eventually owning two successful bakeries. Her daughter, Pilar, isn’t impressed by this success, however, and finds ways to rebel against her mother’s strident pro-Americanism and moral conservatism. She becomes a painter and attends art school; one of the novel’s best scenes tells of a painting she completes for her mother’s new bakery, which is supposed to be patriotic in its message and ends up being something quite else.
The other daughter is Felicia, who remained in Cuba and who struggles throughout her life with mental illness. Her story is a sad one, as she is caught up in a difficult marriage and has trouble raising her three children; one summer, the summer of the coconuts, she and her young son survive on nothing but coconut ice cream. Her children are torn between their need for and love of their mother and their curiosity about their estranged father; they suffer from their mother’s bouts of illness, but she, too, is a victim. Celia does what she can to help her grandchildren, but her interventions can only do so much good.
The novel is ultimately about the ways our families shape who we are — they define us, whether we live in close proximity to them or thousands of miles away. Several of the characters are haunted by the ghosts of dead relatives or are able to communicate telepathically with far-away family members. Others, such as Pilar, are haunted by memories of the lost home in Cuba; while her mother wants only to live securely in America, Pilar wonders what life is like on her lost island and what kind of relationship she could have with her grandmother Celia. No one can escape the influence of family, whether it be the memories they create for us or the standards they set against we can try, often unsuccessfully, to rebel.
No one can escape their political context either; the Cuban revolution divides the family both ideologically and physically, causing a rift that is symbolized by Celia’s picture of Castro which she has placed over a picture of her husband and which Lourdes flings into the sea in a fit of rage. The picture symbolizes how political and familial forces blend in intricate ways to shape each of the novel’s characters. They can’t change the circumstances of their birth; they can only respond to them in the best way they can.