Of Angels and Demons
Review of Singing to Cuba
Whispering angels and skulking demons, poems burned out of fear, forbidden songs, hidden villages where people stay as virtual prisoners for generations? A city where the only food that can be freely bought is ice-cream, neighbors spy on each others, and young men are taken to prison because they are considered to be "in a dangerous state of mind?" Singing to Cuba", the beautifully written, poetic novel by Margarita Engle, reads alternatively as science fiction and magical realism.
Published on LatinoLA: September 5, 2004
The reader is transported to a Caribbean island where 50?s Fords coexist with modern, air-conditioned buses that can only be used by tourists. Life in Cuba is full of contrasts, from the wasteful abundance of a tourist-only hotel buffet brimming with "roast pork, stewed chicken, fried fish, spiced ground beef, potatoes, rice, black beans?" to the "handful of precious yams and malanga tubers?displayed like gemstones" in the kitchen of an ordinary Cuban home. But contrasts go beyond to have and not to have.
The serene beauty of the countryside is broken by the government soldiers? raid on a farm where they burn animals and houses and take their dwellers to a city jail. A prison with black, metallic cells is named Little Sweet Potato ?Boniatico?
The unnamed narrator is a Cuban American woman who has traveled to Cuba in 1991 to reconnect with her maternal family and to tell them "that they are not forgotten." By 1991 the Special Period in Times of Peace, as it was officially called by the Cuban government, had started. The collapse of communism in Europe reverberated in Cuba?s crumbling buildings, minimal food rations, lack of public transportation, and the constant struggle to get dollars. Once in the island, the narrator discovers a part of her own self while she travels around the familiar, yet in so many ways foreign and magical landscape of her mother?s homeland.
She learns about the Cuban people, loud and open in the surface, but who have been taught to "keep their mouths sealed with seven locks and seven keys" for fear of neighbors, strangers, and the omnipresent secret police. Fear permeates the ambiance and sets the tone of the novel, like an oppressive musical theme, infecting families ?those who are dissident, no matter how quiet, are afraid of their Communist Party member relatives-- and even the narrator herself. Parallel to her voice runs the story of her great uncle Gabriel, since the morning of his arrest until his death in a Captive Town.
Elegantly crafted, with Biblical references woven in the narrative, and with a dab of suspense, Singing to Cuba is an accurate portrait of the way people feel, eat, work, travel, and fear in an island frozen in time.
Margarita Engle is a Cuban American writer, columnist, and poet, who lives presently in California.
Singing to Cuba, Author: Margarita Englem, Arte Publico Press, 1993, $9.50
Teresa Dovalpage is a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico and the author of A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, April 2004) and Posesas de La Habana (PurePlay Press, July 2004) www.dovalpage.com