September 10, 2009

Book review: "Ruins," by Achy Obejas

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Ruins, by Achy Obejas

Ruins
By Achy Obejas
Akashic Books / ISBN: 978-1-93335-469-9

(Important disclosure: Achy Obejas is an acquaintance of mine, and is scheduled to be interviewed for the CCLaP Podcast later this winter; nonetheless, I have tried to write as objective a review of her book here as possible.)

Ah, Cuba! Just the name alone is enough to conjure up a myriad of images in most Americans' minds -- from its colonial days as a US-supported tourist paradise, to its countercultural-era communist revolution (seen by some as impossibly romantic and others as the pinnacle of the Red Scare), to its years as a next-door pawn in the US/Soviet Cold War, and now to its tragic modern history, where the veil of state secrecy has lifted to reveal a country in deep financial and spiritual trouble, a people struggling to hold together as a nation even as they face their first leadership crisis in half a century.

And certainly, Chicago author and Pulitzer winner* Achy Obejas knows something about this subject herself: born in Cuba right before the revolution, an emigre at the age of six to Indiana of all places, she has not only maintained close ties to her native country but has traveled there extensively as an adult, and in fact first gained fame for a series of short stories and then a novel about the Cuban-American immigrant experience. And so that's what makes her newest novel such a surprise, the aptly-titled Ruins put out just a little earlier this year by the fine folks at Akashic Books, because in many ways it's an anti-Cuban right-winger's dream -- set in 1994 during the middle of what's known there as the "Special Period" (i.e. the disastrous years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when a new treaty spearheaded by Bill Clinton led to the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Cubans to the US), the book is an unflinching look at all the ways that nation has fallen apart because of communism, a Caribbean 1984 if you will where seemingly all aspects of Cuban life are rapidly crumbling, except for the Kafkaesque totalitarian bureaucracy that's supposed to be holding it all together.

Like I said, this is unusual for the liberal, politically active Obejas, who before this novel was actually as well-known for her lesbianism as for her Cuban heritage (she's the past winner of a Lambda Award on top of everything else, a prestigious honor within the gay literary community for those who don't know); or at the very least, I certainly wasn't expecting a novel about how terrible Cuba has become in recent years, a dark and pessimistic tale that I suspect is going to take many of her existing fans by surprise. It's primarily the story of aging revolutionary Usnavy (pronounced "us-nah-VEE," and yes, named for the American warships docked in the Guantanamo Bay area where he was born), in his mid-fifties now when our story takes place and seen as hopelessly old-fashioned by everyone around him, a proud veteran of Che Guevara's youth brigades who is one of the only people left in his neighborhood to sincerely believe in the communist ideal.

And of course it's this that ultimately does make Ruins a Obejas novel instead of a right-winger's wet dream, because Obejas brings a plain-spoken complexity and humanity to a subject that's been so cartoonishly vilified in the American psyche over the decades; take away the communism, for example, and Usnavy could easily be a character from a Richard Russo novel, a skinny-tie-wearing worshipper of Modernism now dazed and confused by the changes in society brought about by the postmodernism and moral relativity of the '70s, '80s and '90s. That's the truly brilliant and heartbreaking aspect of the novel, in that Usnavy has a kind of quiet mid-century dignity that you want to inherently root for, even as you understand how ridiculously outdated it is -- he's one of those people who still believes in dressing up when visiting a government building, still believes that if you simply work within the system without complaint long enough you will eventually get what you're seeking, no matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented to him. (For a good example, see the book-length struggle Usnavy goes through in trying to track down a copy of his teenage daughter's birth certificate, a whole series of blackly comedic events that could've been lifted straight from the pages of Catch-22.)

And in fact this seems to be the bigger point Obejas is trying to make in Ruins, that Cuba as a whole is much like Usnavy as an individual, that there's a quiet dignity to its entire national character that is clashing badly these days with a Castro regime falling apart at the seams, an ugly "everyone for themselves" attitude that has arisen in its wake, and the accidental funding of this attitude by obnoxious Western tourists, waving around huge wads of dollars and euros for any local willing to denigrate themselves enough. Because make no mistake, we white folks don't get off easy in this novel either; the book is in fact full of subplots where Canadians, Europeans and Americans (the latter of course traveling there illegally) just keep making a bad situation worse and worse, sometimes with these Westerners even being do-gooder liberals who don't deliberately mean to. I mean, just take the main subplot running throughout for an excellent example of this, the way that Usnavy gets slowly sucked into a circle of shady hucksters who scavenge half-broken old Tiffany lamps from historically important disaster sites and sell them to gullible, cash-flush Westerners, many of whom are specifically there just for this purpose; the multiple surprises embedded in this subplot are best left as secret as possible (it's this storyline, after all, that mainly propels the book's actual plot), but let's just say that in general, this looting of national treasures in order to turn a quick American buck becomes the proverbial poisoned apple for our once-noble hero, corroding him more and more until reaching the legitimately tragic ending this novel has.

It was a real surprise, to tell you the truth, after expecting some happy little multicultural magic-realism fairytale that would undoubtedly make for a heartwarming Lifetime movie, and I applaud Obejas for heading in a much darker direction than I think many of her fans would expect her to go. Or, you know, I could be completely wrong, and perhaps the rest of her work is just as bleak as this masterfully expansive yet intimate tale; that's the problem of course of bringing your own biases into a reading experience beforehand, and is why I'm now looking forward to going back and reading all her past books myself, in preparation for our interview for the CCLaP Podcast coming later this winter. As you can tell, it's a book I highly recommend, a story that will satisfy no matter what your personal opinion of either Cuba or communism in general. Do make sure to pick up a copy without delay.

Out of 10: 9.4

Read even more about Ruins: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*Well, okay, she was part of a team of reporters at the Chicago Tribune who all shared a group Pulitzer; but it's still impressive.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:45 PM, September 10, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |