In this debut novel, a college professor prepares to escape a tyrannical government on the eve of the Cuban Communist revolution.
Arsenio Buendia grew up poor and lost his mother at an early age, but he now enjoys a prosperous life with a beautiful wife and three children that fills him with pride and gratitude. He teaches political science at Havana University; he’s known for being an intellectually demanding taskmaster, but he’s also popular with his students because he’s unencumbered by ossified ideology. However, he frets that his idyllic life is threatened by volatile political forces engulfing his native Cuba. There have always been radical elements within the academy—his boisterous colleague, Adolfo, for example, is a Communist sympathizer who’s more than happy to indoctrinate (and sometimes seduce) his students. But the tenor of the streets is starting to palpably change, and one evening, while Arsenio is out with his wife, young leftist radicals dressed in militant garb storm the nightclub where they’re dining and threateningly demand money from the patrons. Stung by what he interprets as his country’s impending collapse into tyranny, Arsenio begins to plan his family’s escape to New York City. His brother, Guillermo, though, is arrested on trumped-up charges of counterrevolutionary activities, and his maid, Ofelia, gives birth to a new child, forcing Arsenio to alter his plans. Now he wants to send his family to New York in advance, but he faces considerable danger at home as Fidel Castro comes into power. Febles, whose own parents fled Cuba in 1962, paints a vivid picture of creeping political instability. The plot moves from small flickers of threat to a consuming conflagration. Sometimes, though, the tension unfolds too leisurely, and a subplot involving an accident congests an already packed tale. Also, the author’s own philosophical attachments, which he candidly expresses in an introduction, are reflected in the overly didactic dialogue. For instance, a college student sings a wringing paean to liberal democracy during a classroom debate, recounted in extraordinary detail: “Paine’s Common Sense and Rousseau’s Social Contract paved the way for a world free from tyranny, where the oppressed would gain victory over bloodthirsty despots, and now you are asking our people, a free people, to willingly subject themselvesh [sic] to the shackles of a communist society?” Overall, though, this insider’s peek into a nation’s unraveling is both gripping and historically astute.
A well-crafted dramatization of the tragedy of the Cuban Revolution.