This is a book about two brothers from Cuba who formed a Mambo band in the fifties and emigrated into the United States. It has kind of a double structure: on the hand it, it mimics (starting with the title) a record with A and B side, but it also is a doubly framed narrative, with the son of one of the brothers imagining the other brother (that’s his uncle, obviously) spending his last few days in his room in a shabby hotel reminiscing and imagining his life. Which means that except for two brief, prologue/epilogue-like passages at the beginning and the end of the novel the reader is told everything from at least one and most frequently two or three removes away.
This sounds more complicated than it actually is when reading the novel – while The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love does like to jump back and forth in time, its essentially episodic character keeps it from getting confusing; the narration is not so much fragmented as split down into small units that work mostly independently from each other and just happen to share characters (which fits quite well with – possibly even is a consequence of – the record-like structure of the novel, which is a collection of songs rather than a unified work like, for example, a symphony). And while the novel keeps reminding the reader from time to time that they’re one or two narrators away from events as they actually happened, it never really makes much of this and avoids any kind of in-depth explorations of the unreliability of memory or the epistemology of narrative.
What The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love focuses on instead and what indeed it is mostly about is masculinity, about the ways males attempt to assert their manhood and the ways they hurt not only women but themselves in the process. The novel’s first part (the A side of the imaginary record) contrasts two types of masculinity, embodied in the two Castillo brothers: Cesar, who is an unabashed macho and sleeps with as many women as he can, each of them another proof of his manhood, and Nestor who proves his masculinity by staying true to a single woman, even after she left him and he has found happiness with another woman. Hijuelos shows convincingly how the apparently deep, sensitive and soulful type of man who keeps pining after his one true love is just as (if not even more) oppressive to women and ultimately self-destructive than superficial, unsteady machismo. The second part focuses entirely on Cesar and shows how his manhood falls into pieces as it grows older – as he largely defines himself by way of his penis (and its supposedly impressive size), his identity and sense of self-worth start to come apart as the seams when he grows older and increasingly less attractive to women, until he finally only keeps himself upright and intact by reminiscences of his former sexual acts.
I thought the first part worked better than the second one because the contrasting attitudes of the two brothers kept things more lively and interesting than Cesar whining about how it he can’t get it up anymore – the lonely old man in his hotel room mourning his past was probably supposed to be sad and melancholic, but for the most part just comes across as querulous and fretful. What Hijuelos does really well is steep the reader in the atmosphere of the time and place he is describing (even though in some passages he does rely rather too much on simple name-dropping to create a mood), particularly his descriptions of pre-revolutionary Cuba are vivid and intense and infused with the kind of elegiac nostalgia he fails to achieve with the fate of aging Cesar. Here, however, one would have wished for a bit less nostalgia, as there was not really much about the Batista regime to wax lyrical about – something which, to be fair, the novel does not completely gloss over, but there is an undeniable tendency to view this time clouded in a romanticised haze that blurs the edges of oppression and poverty.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won the Pulitzer prize in 1990 – apparently Oscar Hijuelos was the first Latin writer to win it, so I suppose there is some achievement in that, but for the novel it is typical Pulitzer fare – neither really bad nor really good, somewhat literary but not too difficult, and overall distinctly mediocre. I don’t (quite) regret reading the novel, but won’t be in a hurry to seek out anything else by that author.