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Posted on Sun, Feb. 06, 2005


Looking for José and his Cuban past

As a Miami Lakes man searches for his half-brother, a captivating portrait of exile comes to life.



Carlos Victoria. Translated from the Spanish by David Landau. Pureplay. 192 pages. $25.

Maintaining any close relationship with Cuba is tricky. From a distance, through generations, the memories fade, and perhaps the wounds lessen. But for those who came of age on its soil and were later displaced, a dual identity is irreconcilable, and home is always far away.

And so, when exiled Natan Velazquez's dying father writes from Cuba to tell him he has a half-brother in Miami, Natan is elated with the prospect of connecting with someone who shares his family history. But his brother, José, for whom he searches in the darkest corners of Miami, does not want to be found.

This cunning, lyrical novel by Carlos Victoria takes the reader on a fascinating and dark journey through the psyche of an exile's mind, one riddled with loneliness and longing and struggling to set down roots in what is still a foreign land.

Victoria, a copy editor at El Nuevo Herald and author of La travesía secreta and La ruta del mago as well as several short story collections, wrote the novel 10 years ago in Spanish and won the prestigious Letras de Oro prize. This version is the first English translation of a work by Victoria, one of the most well-known Cuban writers to have left through the Port of Mariel in 1980.

Natan, a single middle-aged man living in Miami Lakes, takes a vacation from his day job at an export company to find his brother. He begins by contacting José's aunt, a kooky old woman who puts him in touch with José's ex-girlfriends, a seamstress and a hair salon owner, intriguing characters in their own right.

The message from all of them is the same: José is a free spirit, and they have not heard from him in years. Refusing to accept that his brother may be impossible to locate, Natan grows more and more disturbed by his search, swearing that he sees José lurking on the far side of a lake outside his building and later among a pack of drug dealers.

Finding his brother in the flesh is, of course, never what Natan's search is really about. Rather, it is a mechanism through which the protagonist connects with a lost part of himself, particularly the father who abandoned him as a child and the country that rejected his anti-revolutionary ideals.

Cuban writers of the Mariel generation often focus on similar questions of identity and the disillusionment of exile. The island holds their past. Being unable to access it from afar produces in many of them an eternal emptiness, one that only the bonds and collective history of family can heal. This, then, is why it becomes so important for Natan to connect with his lost brother: ``Natan had harbored the hope that his half-brother might be the missing link between them. Indeed, that seemed to be the old man's idea in asking him to take up the search; but the train of mysteries kept father out of the picture, exiled in a remote darkness, impossible to grasp or know, like the distant laugh of a man or a bird sounding through the pines.''

Victoria's writing is poetic, ripe with imagery, symbolism and the other traditional tenets of magical realism. Translator David Landau succeeds in capturing this lyricism in English. His style largely complements Natan's descent into near insanity, although it may distance readers looking for a more straightforward account of a life in exile.

In the end, though, this slender and captivating novel is an original portrait of the exile experience, which, as we wait for Cuba to change, does not always end as we might have hoped.

Christine Armario is a writer in New York.

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