Friday, February 17, 2012

Fiction Review: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

One of my book groups met this week to discuss The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Most of us agreed that, although a bit long and rambling at times, it is a novel worth reading.

Mambo Kings tells the story of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor, who grew up in Cuba and immigrated to the United States in 1949. They found jobs in a meat-packing plant in New York City by day and formed a band, The Mambo Kings, for which they played, sang, and danced by night.  The highlight of their brief celebrity was an appearance on the I Love Lucy show, as Ricky’s Cuban cousins visiting New York and playing a special show at the Tropicana, after Desi Arnaz heard the brothers’ band one night and invited them on the show.

The whole book, except for a brief prologue and epilogue, is narrated by Cesar, the older brother, as he sits in a decrepit hotel room in 1980, drinking whiskey and waiting to die, thinking back over his 62 years of life. That’s why the novel sometimes feels like it is rambling and long-winded; it is the remembrances of a tired old man.  The story jumps back and forth through time, sometimes going all the way back to his childhood with an abusive father in Cuba, sometimes recalling their glory days as the Mambo Kings, sometimes considering recent years with family and friends, and occasionally even settling briefly in the present.

It’s an interesting story, and most of our book group agreed that one of the best parts of it was being transported to that particular time and place, within the musical Cuban immigrant community of New York in the 1950’s, when men wore hats and suits, women dressed up to go to the store, and everyone lived for dancing to live music on the weekends.  Hijuelos’ prose does transport the reader; his novel is filled with lush sensory details: the vibrant flowers of Cuba, the noise-filled dance halls of New York, the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of living in that time and place.

Cesar himself is a stereotypical Latin American male: macho, self-confident and swaggering, and an enormous womanizer (who loves to recall his sexual conquests in great detail!).  His younger brother was quieter, more introspective, and less confident, yearning for true love.  The prologue and epilogue are narrated by Nestor’s son, Eugenio, so there is a brief glimpse of his perspective, too, as the next generation.

None of the six women discussing the book in my book group this week loved this novel, though most of us (myself included) said we were glad to have read it.  One woman really hated Cesar’s womanizing, so she disliked the book for that reason.  It is an interesting look into the lives of Cuban immigrants (and a glimpse into pre-Castro Cuba).  Many of us were also fascinated with the world of the mambo bands, something none of us knew anything about before reading the book.  Several of us went to YouTube and Wikipedia while reading the book to read more about mambo and watch videos of the various real-life musicians mentioned in the novel.  I enjoyed this video clip of the Mambo Kings’ biggest hit, Beautiful Maria of My Soul (from the movie adaptation of the novel). 

448 pages, Hyperion

(If you are interested in reading more about Cuba before and during the revolution, I highly recommend Carlos Eire's wonderful memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana.)

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