NPR’s The Story recently aired a segment about a Cuban-American man visiting his parents’ birthplace for the first time. In his introduction, the host informed us that Cuban parents tell their American children one of two things: that Cuba is a ruined country run by a terrible dictator, or that it’s home.
In Ruins, Cuban-born novelist Achy Obejas takes on such binary thinking. For her protagonist, Usnavy (named for the pre-revolution U.S. Navy ships his mother spotted in the harbor), Cuba is home because he lives there and always has, from his days as a young revolutionary to his present life as a middle-aged bodega worker. But it’s hardly the homeland idealized by exiles or, for that matter, by left-leaning Americans who sing the praises of free healthcare (it’s free, yes, but anesthetic is a luxury).
Usnavy’s Cuba is one where people hustle for tourist dollars to buy meat and marinate strips of wool blanket when they can’t afford to. Usnavy is disgusted by what his country has become and by what it seems to want to become (American). He’s not so much a diehard communist as he is a loyal innocent and would-be intellectual stuck in his ways: He believes in working hard for the good of the people and not relying on illegal shortcuts to get ahead.
This is also potentially his downfall, as his stubbornness increasingly alienates him from even his wife and teenage daughter, who is itching for adventure beyond the confines of her parents’ crumbling and claustrophobic apartment. And so Usnavy begins his own adventure as he tries to fix and sell Tiffany lamps salvaged from the old colonial buildings that collapse in every Havana rainstorm.
This particular venture suits him—though his goal is money, the lamps themselves are as colorful and ephemeral as a revolutionary dream, and his curiosity yields revelations about Louis Comfort Tiffany, Cuban history and, eventually, his own origins. It’s fascinating for readers too—Obejas’ take on Cuba feels like an insider’s perspective, neither poverty porn nor propaganda. Sometimes she lets her research get the best of her, though, sprinkling the narrative with interesting facts that don’t quite belong.
Ironically, the Tiffany lamp plot and its accompanying light metaphors are sometimes less than illuminating. I kept trying to glean an allegory but never arrived at a satisfactory one. And maybe that’s fine, given the book’s many pleasures of character and image. But I felt most clued into Obejas’ themes during a scene in which Usnavy’s drunken friend recounts sleeping with a South African transvestite:
“She wasn’t like the locas here,” Jacinto said. “She had lived like that all her life. Where she came from, in her tribe, if she acted like a woman, if she really believed she was a woman, well…she was…”
…Usnavy wanted to know more about how this could happen, how believing so much could transcend something so real.
Usnavy is thinking, specifically, of another friend’s son, who has emigrated to Miami and transitioned to female. But the notion that belief can become reality is central to the novel. On one hand, it’s a lie: For decades Usnavy and much of Cuba have believed in revolutionary ideals, only to see their country wither in isolation. On the other, faith in dreams—in the beauty that a certain kind of light or thought can lend a mundane world—is what makes life, if not always change, possible.
I saw Obejas speak at a book fair panel, and she said that she’s gotten some flack from Cubans about the title, which, it’s true, would not exactly lure tourists, if Cuba were in the business of luring tourists. But after reading the novel, it’s clear that the term isn’t meant as an insult either. Ruins are a place of loss, but also of discovery and history. They’re ripe for a kind of melancholic meandering that first-world countries could use a bit more of. Reading Obejas’ novel, which unfolds like a lazy walk after a rainstorm, is a good place to start.