From the Cuban playwright, poet, and second-novelist (Thine is the Kingdom, 1999): a fantastical tale, published last year, that sees art both as a contrast with reality and a retreat from it is the subject.
The protagonist, ironically named Victorio, is a sexually timid gay man in his mid-40s who’s adrift in unfamiliar territory when forced to exit the condemned building in Havana in which he lives alone. Victorio is both sustained and challenged by memories of his late nurturing mother Hortensia and his absent father “Papa Robespierre,” whose ardent commitment to the 1959 Castro Revolution had estranged him from his wife and son—and also of El Moro, a dashing airplane pilot remembered as both indulgent mentor and disturbing sexual presence. Victorio (not quite credibly) bonds with teenaged street prostitute Isabelita (a.k.a. “Salma”), an ingenuous waif who envisions her future as a Hollywood goddess, and with Don Fuco, an elderly vaudevillian who schools them both in theatrical artifice and magic—performed as defiant responses to urban disrepair and public surrender to political exigency and repression. The change that thus overtakes Victorio (who decides “that the theater is the place for him”) is the realization of El Moro’s promise that a beckoning “palace” awaits every disadvantaged dreamer. But Victorio’s joy in performing is short-lived, as police close in on the abandoned theater housing Don Fuco and his minions. Distant Palaces is an allegory of aesthetic choice and commitment. Neither its slack plot nor its fey characters draw much reader empathy, and Estévez’s unaccountable fondness for vacuous declarations (“The only mystery of night is that it holds no mysteries,” etc.) is even more off-putting. The issue of Victorio’s embattled masculinity is intriguing, but it’s swallowed up in eccentricity and ostentation.
Estévez’s first novel was a winner; his second resembles nothing so much as a very bad Fellini film.