Oscar Hijuelos, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien

October 16, 2013

This week saw the passing of Oscar Hijuelos: guitar-playing, cake-loving (I suspect), also lover of bountiful, sometimes over-stuffed prose.

His father was the morning-to-lunch shift cook at the Biltmore Hotel, so he definitely knew a thing or two about food.   In Our House in the Last World, the pastry chef Alejo Santanio and his friend Diego got their pictures taken before a glittering cart of desserts, next to a “fat, cheery beaming face,” the face of the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was attending a lunch in his honor.

Macropolitics was miniaturized in that way.   In A Simple Habana Melody it was miniaturized through the ordeal of Israel Levi, a Cuban musician taken as Jewish and imprisoned in Nazi-occupied France.

But the most daring book is probably The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien, about an Irish-Cuban family, 14 girls and a single boy, Emilio, delivered “out of the heaven of his mother’s womb” like a “bronze alter bell,” trailing “clouds of Cuban and Irish humors, slipping into this feminine universe.”  It was a counterintuitive but logical sequel to its predecessor, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a machismo-filled book which left Hijuelos with “a mixture of melancholy and exuberance,” which had to be redressed.

Hijuelos himself was flaxen-haired when he was young, growing up a largely non-Latino block on West 118th Street in Harlem, as if he were a throwback to a remote Irish ancestor lurking somewhere in the family tree.

I’m glad that little bit of genealogy had this particular afterlife.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
This entry was posted in Caribbean literature, Cities, Contemporary novel, Cuba, Diaspora, Food in literature, Latin America, Latino/a literature, Music and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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