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Memories of music and love in Habana
In his latest novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love) has delivered a story so achingly beautiful, so full of passion, regret and the power of memory, it is deserving of the term masterpiece.
As A Simple Habana Melody begins in 1947, world-renowned composer Israel Levis has returned from Spain to his beloved Habana, his birthplace, home to his dreams and the soul of his music. But he is literally a shadow of his formerly corpulent and vibrant self. Only 57, he feels and appears much older than he really is, and his notorious appetites for food, sex, music and drinking are only memories now.
And memories are the blood and bones of this exquisite telling of his life. In lush and evocative prose, the story of this musical prodigy unfolds through a series of vignettes depicting his family, childhood and youth in early 20th century Cuba.
Enamored of a beautiful young singer named Rita Valladares, Levis in 1928 writes her a song, "Rosas Puras," or "Pretty Roses," which becomes the most popular rumba in the world and makes the couple famous. Rita marries another man, is widowed and goes to Paris in the '30s to sing. Levis eventually follows, ostensibly to work on a stage production of "Rosas Puras," but stays to be near her.
When the Nazis enter Paris, Israel Levisa devout Cuban Catholicis mistaken for a Jew because of his name and sent to Buchenwald. He survives, his body and spirit broken, and makes his way back to Habana and his dreams of Rita.
Offers to play and compose pour in, but his desire to write music, like his once great appetite, has faded. Levis reflects on his gifted life and on the existence of God and an afterlife with a mixture of sadness and resignation. He receives a number of visits from a doting Rita, and marvels at the reticence that kept him from expressing his love all these years.
With Levis home in his beloved study, the novel settles to an extraordinarily beautiful conclusion of intelligent grace. An exceptional life, elegantly told by an artist of exceptional gifts.
Sam Harrison is a writer in Ormond Beach, Florida.