Pulitzer-winner Hijuelos (Empress of the Splendid Season, 1999, etc.) is at his massively engaging best in this bittersweet life story of a gifted Cuban composer.
Israel Levis—whose Jewish-sounding name will one day make him a prisoner in Buchenwald—is born in 1890 into a Habana household where books, music, science, and religion (his mother is devoutly Catholic, his father a physician and amateur naturalist) all thrive in a wonderful sort of harmony. Little real surprise, then, when at age four little Israel shows himself a musical prodigy—or that his talent grows so rapidly that he is soon performing, winning awards, and composing. What first makes him internationally famous, however, is the one simple song—“Rosas Puras”—that he writes (“pulling that simple melody out of the balmy October air of Habana”) one day in 1928 for Rita Valledares, the singer 12 years his junior whom he’ll love passionately all his life but remain too timid and formal ever to let her know. These two lives—of the portly, kind, gifted composer and the vibrant, pretty singer—lie at the center of the book, but so do the “lives” of Habana and Paris as evoked by Hijuelos: the vibrant, cosmopolitan, lively, sophisticated life of Habana through the 1920s and up to the early 1930s, when Israel finally (times turn bad under the dictator Machado) joins Rita Valledares in Paris and experiences that city’s wealth of liberality, beauty, variety, and inspiration as he composes, drinks, performs, and meets the likes of Ravel, Stravinsky, etc. But this wondrous tale of melodies and cities ends with the Nazi occupation, and in 1947 Levis returns to Habana a broken and disillusioned man, although the six years of his life that do remain will be, in Hijuelos’s hands, among the most moving of all.
A masterpiece of history, music, wonder, and sorrow that capably embraces most of a troubled century. Riveting. It should go far indeed.