Olympian and Santería mythologies merge in this international romance.
Lessik’s debut novel has just about everything: love, identity, politics, the politics of identity, heartbreak, mythical overtones, and innumerable gods in the machine. Antinio grows up in a Cuba that is unapologetically militant (whereas he is peaceful), irreligious (where he is polytheistic), and macho (while he is gay). He has advantages too: he’s winsome, muscular, quick to learn foreign tongues, and has a very big pinga. He first comes to enjoy sex with boys at a military encampment during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. After he’s raped by one of the more vicious boys, he attempts suicide and returns to civilian life. But to be gay is to violate taboo in the Cuba of the ’60s and when Antinio’s affections are revealed, he’s expelled from college and comes to feel himself “lower than a worm.” As an adolescent, Antinio’s favorite book is The Golden Ages, a primer on the gods of Olympus and the heroes they championed. “Antinio saw the similarity between the gods he was studying and the Santería orishas,” various aspects of the godhead’s divinity. Characters in the novel (Calypso, for example, the woman who protects his secrets and gets him readmitted to the university as a linguist) appear with names from Greek mythology, but there is a decided mixing of influence: Calypso, in the book, is also a priestess of Santería. A doctor who tends his fate in a psychiatric ward is named Minos. This is charming, if unsubtle, and the key at the beginning of the work—spelling out the meaning of the characters’ Greek names and what roles they play in the narrative—probably gives the game away a bit too early. But there’s another level to the metaphor: “Antinio and his partners use the terms Greek-active and -passive to describe their sexual behavior.” To be gay was (and is) often to be scorned in America as well, and when the story follows Antinio’s journey to Minnesota as a refugee, and then, later, into illness and suffering, Lessik’s prose is always sympathetic and eloquent.
A handsome but tormented Cuban man finds both joy and hardship in this operatic novel.