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.