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The Pull Of Memory

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Oscar Hijuelos once stated that "Latins are predisposed to thinking about the past," and in his new novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Mambo Kings explores this notion of looking back, presenting us with a novel that is in itself a meditation on memory.

A Simple Habana Melody poses the question of how it can be possible that time passes so quickly, when in one's infancy one seems to have lived a hundred years, "only to see the passage of every moment, as one gets older, rushing forward, one day folding into the other," leaving one yearning for a time when things were much simpler and the world was good.

It is 1947 and renowned Cuban composer Israel Levis returns home from abroad a broken man. Haunted by his past and simply hoping to die in what peace he can find, Levis returns to the Havana of his heyday, a mere shadow of his former self. Once a tall, corpulent and physically imposing man with broad shoulders, Levis, having suffered through the Nazi occupation of France in World War II and his experiences in the Buchenwald labor camp, now resembles "a forlorn guajiro of the countryside." His hair has turned white, and he has grown an unruly beard, appearing gaunt and frail.

For the most part, the novel is framed by the expectation that Leavis's almost predatory desire to absorb life and create art will be reconciled with his contentment to sit off to the side and watch the proceedings around him. We understand why passion fails, commitment is just out of sight, and potential happiness is always held just at arm's length. Because of his devotion to music, Leavis often allows life to pass him by in matters of love, preferring "the inspiration that his longings and loneliness for women brought to him" over the affection itself.

Overcome with indecision and regret, Levis has lost his craving for both food and the exertions of creativity that had once so excited him, and believes he will never again compose another piece of music. But upon his arrival in Havana, he is struck by the sweet fairytale memories of his youth, memories of his childhood home on the calle Olivares. Set behind its pinkish stone walls covered with bougainvillea, Levis pictures himself as a child inside that home, practicing his scales upon his piano, and imagines he hears the very melody of that song he composed in 1928, the song that would change his life forever, "Rosas Puras" or "Pretty Roses," and can feel once again the balmy October night of that evening in Havana.

There are no saints or angels in this novel, only the humanity of the people that shines through as a value in itself. Although nearly 25 years have passed since he wrote his famous composition, Leavis feels as if he is separated from that time by the thinnest of veils, and seems to take great pleasure in "those items in his life that have inflamed his memory." He is a man haunted by ghosts: Anabella, his younger sister, Knochen, the Nazi commandant who urged him to play his famous composition while an internee at Buchenwald, Rita Valladares, an unrequited love, the beautiful octoroon singer for whom that song was written, and although never acted upon, his occasional secret pangs of desire for handsome men.

Adept at the poetic image and the nimble cadence of a cultivated line, Hijuelos creates a melodic, unrushed prose that weaves together a love story of family, art and country, both past and present, that blends layered montages of both desire and remorse, and composes a swirling sequence of notes that form one man's meditative melody of dreams and the corresponding silent pauses of a cold and unsentimental world.

Unsettling and unassuming, A Simple Habana Melody records the complexities of the human spirit, acknowledging its many triumphs as well as its many wounds. Throughout his life, Leavis had always hoped "that music and the noble motivations of the artist would shut out the bad of the world," but in the end, he learns that things don't always work out "like the melody of a song." Yet he looks upon the world with great nostalgia as a place brimming with music and full of mystery, and the seed that holds the resolution of his own life and death. *

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