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An aching daughter of the Cuban revolution

Loving Che by Ana Menéndez

Reviewed by Timothy Peters

The pain and loneliness of exile — surely a cornerstone of Cuban American fiction — permeates this poetic, fragmentary first novel by Ana Menéndez, a former journalist born in Los Angeles to Cuban emigres and the author of a well-received book of short
stories (In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, 2001). But in telling the story of a young woman abandoned by her mother during the early days of the Cuban revolution, Menéndez connects the understandable loss of exile with a much more profound “trauma of separation.” Raised in Miami by her grandfather, the unnamed narrator longs to know the truth of her parents, but the grandfather only supplies “the understanding that my father had been in prison, and had died there, and that in her grief my mother had sent me away.”
Such a cursory explanation fails to answer the questions that haunt this detached young woman, and she begins to search for her mother or, at least, for a glimpse of her mother’s experience. But the quest is largely fruitless until a mysterious package, postmarked in Spain but without a return address, arrives containing a bundle of handwritten notes and photographs. Its contents supply the core narrative of the book, an account of her mother, Teresa de la Landre, and her love affair with the legendary revolutionary, Ernesto Che Guevara.

Related in disjointed shards of prose and illustrated by news photos of the scruffy leader, Teresa’s story amounts to an impressionistic autobiography: a privileged upbringing, her marriage to an academic named Calixto de la Landre, her vocation as a painter. These fragments also form an idiosyncratic and evocative portrait of Cuba, from the “yellow-green heat like liquid” to, as the revolution begins, “gunfire … like thunder from a demented half-world. ”

The revolution, of course, is the signal event in Teresa’s life, and she writes that “cataclysmic events, whatever their outcome, are as rare and transporting as a great love.” In this case, one small by-product of that violent, ugly upheaval is the encounter between Teresa and Guevara. She is at first “repulsed … with his smell and filth” and put off by his vulgarity, feelings that mask her attraction to the bearded rebel. They become lovers when Guevara visits her studio, and the story of their affair is told in some of the finest writing in the novel, handled with palpable erotic heat and refreshing decorum (not an easy balance to achieve): “A kiss. The first parting of flesh. Everything that comes later is sweet elaboration.”

But is the affair real or imagined? That’s the essential mystery at the heart of this novel. The narrator’s attempt to fathom the nearly unfathomable nature of truth, particularly personal truth, enables Menéndez to conjoin love and history and politics into a powerful melange. One of the strengths of this book is that while its backdrop is one of the most politically charged events since World War II, Menéndez’s focus is on a much more intimate drama; she uses the revolution because it illuminates her theme of separation. She doesn’t romanticize it, but there’s no attempt at neutrality either; she provides a devastating portrayal of Cuba’s postrevolutionary failure.

Her narrator observes that contemporary Havana, “so lovely at first glance, was really a city of dashed hopes.” And later: “Everywhere, the socialist experiment seemed dead and buried, awaiting only the death and burial of its maximum leader.”

Even Teresa realizes that Che and the new government were devolving into corruption and terror when she writes that “a thin black core of doubt has begun to burrow into the revolution’s heart.”

Literature should never be purely polemical or political, but that doesn’t mean that politics and literature cannot intermingle in interesting, insightful ways.

Menéndez’s literary sensibility also reveals itself in strongly, often beautifully poetic prose: “Where the cement had cracked, small purple flowers blossomed, as if every house held a garden prisoned within its walls.” But she occasionally stretches her gifts as a stylist too far, and the language becomes so self-consciously precious that it fails to contain any truth, literal or fictive (“Women ate their dreams and bloomed like orchids in the rain”).

More seriously, the novel suffers from the thinness of the plot; Loving Che can feel more like an impressionistic memoir than a fully formed narrative. One of Menéndez’s concerns is the elusiveness of a clear story line (“Life is not a tidy narrative,” Teresa’s mother observes), but the essence of a story’s power is to provide shape and form to the shards of memory and experience.

That’s probably why the framing narrative — the narrator’s story — is in some ways the most compelling part of the novel, even though her life is nowhere near as dramatic as her mother’s. As she researches the history of Guevara and the revolution, then returns to Cuba to look for evidence of her mother’s, her quest propels the reader along, a hopeful search that takes her into some strange and compelling little narrative corners. All of us want to understand where we came from; all of us want to understand the early forces that shaped our lives. Perhaps it’s true that definitive answers are hard to come by, but the search for them is an essential component of life itself. This finely wrought, emotionally nuanced first novel reminds us that it’s not just Cubans who have a “fetish for the past.”

Timothy Peters is a Berkeley writer.

[This article appeared on page M – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, January 11, 2004]

Sleeping With the Enemy

Op woensdag 6 april a.s. spreekt de Cubaans-Amerikaanse schrijfster Ana Menéndez de Tweede Cola Debrot-lezing uit in de Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (klik hier voor meer informatie en het reserveren van kaarten). The New York Times besprak vorig jaar haar laatste boek, The Last War.

by Gaiutra Bahadur

The narrator of The Last War has received an anonymous letter accusing her war correspondent husband of infidelity. So, unfortunately, did the book’s author. It speaks to Ana Menéndez’s maturity — as a woman and a writer — that her novel doesn’t go where it might have. It doesn’t constitute literary payback.

Sure, it’s clear to a small, knowing circle that Brando, the character cast as a cheater, is an avatar of Menéndez’s ex-husband, Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter formerly based in Iraq. And yes, she does kill Brando off in a roadside bomb attack. But blowing him up only makes him a martyr to the cause of journalism, and Menéndez ultimately vindicates Brando, having a woman he had a chance to seduce tell his wife: “He was loyal to you.” The book even includes the prominent acknowledgment: “To Dexter Filkins, who showed me the whole world, my everlasting gratitude and affection.”

The details about the letter to Menéndez surfaced publicly in 2005, but barely registered beyond the small community of working journalists. So extraliterary interest goes only so far as a justification for heeding the novel, the third work of fiction by Menéndez, a former columnist for The Miami Herald. Nor is its insight into the commonplace drama of possible adultery especially acute. The narrator, Flash, is a photojournalist. She and her husband are a team, veterans of joint overseas assignments. The letter’s appearance at their home in Istanbul, where she waits before joining Brando in Baghdad, causes her to wander the city in a mawkish fog of doubt, interrogating the past.

The Last War is best when it emerges from this cloud into the clear air where Menéndez began, before her own tear-gas canister of a letter landed. She has said that the letter, arriving as she was midway through her writing, altered it radically. The novel was originally intended to evoke the macabre merry-go-round of reporters who have whirled in and out of Iraq — and, thankfully, it still does. It remains a character study of those who have found their purpose in bearing witness to bloodshed. The truth of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a book by the journalist Chris Hedges on the perverse hold of war on whole societies, resonates for them in the most immediate way. As it turns out, Flash shares this affliction with Brando. And it isn’t just a case of adrenaline addiction.

Flash’s memories keep returning to a scene that unfolded in Afghanistan, where she was on assignment with Brando. After witnessing an execution in a stadium, she saw two boys poking the ground with a stick. When she realized they were tormenting a gecko, she grabbed the stick and whacked one of the boys with it, over and over again. Her breakdown complicates the novel in welcome ways. It makes Flash’s Afghan translator — and others in her group — dislike her. It makes the reader’s feelings about her more conflicted. And it leads to an encounter that tests her own fidelity.

The scene also hints at the broken psyches that pull certain people to spectacles of violence — including a few who have risked their lives to report on the conflict in Iraq. “We were the war junkies,” Flash says, “endlessly drawn to the ragged margins where other people hated and died. It was as if we believed constant movement would deliver us finally from the disappointments of an ordinary life.” The Last War shows how that instinct can lead to dispatches about the bedroom, as well as those from the war zone.

The Last War by Ana Menéndez
225 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $24.99

Gaiutra Bahadur reported from Baghdad for the Knight Ridder newspapers in 2005.

[uit The New York Times, June 24, 2009]

Liefde voor Che

Over Liefde voor Che van Ana Menéndez

Ernesto Che Guevara is een van de charmantste rebellen die ooit heeft bestaan. Een jonge vrouw wil meer weten over haar verleden. Waarom is ze opgegroeid bij haar opa? Waarom is deze in 1960 gevlucht met haar uit Havanna en naar de Verenigde Staten? Het enige uit haar verleden is een truitje, waarop waarschijnlijk door haar moeder een paar regels uit een gedicht van Pablo Neruda zijn vastgespeld.

Maar bij me blijven zul je
In een druppel van mijn bloed
Dat in mijn aderen of daarbuiten

Op een dag ontvangt ze een aantal brieven en foto’s. Langzaam maar zeker ontdekt ze meer over het leven van haar moeder en haar geheime liefdesrelatie met Che. In Liefde voor Che lees je de tijden van het revolutionaire Cuba. De veranderde maatschappij. De hoop en de teleurstelling, de spanning en de angst. En je neemt een kijkje in het liefdesleven van de grote held Che Guevara. Het is een combinatie van historische feiten en persoonlijke geschiedenis. Een prachtig verhaal waarin je helemaal in wordt meegezogen! De schrijfstijl is zó mooi, het is een echte aanrader!

Ana Menéndez (Californië, 1970) is de dochter van Cubaanse emigranten die in de jaren zestig naar de Verenigde Staten zijn gevlucht.
Op 6 april a.s. geeft Ana Menéndez in Amsterdam de Tweede Cola Debrot-lezing, klik hier voor meer info.

[overgenomen van Leefwijzer]

Ana Menéndez geeft tweede Cola Debrot-lezing

De Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren organiseert de Tweede Cola Debrot-lezing op woensdag 6 april 2011 in de grote zaal van de Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam. De lezing wordt gegeven door de Cubaans-Amerikaanse auteur Ana Menéndez.

Ana Menéndez geldt als een van de grootste opkomende talenten uit de Caraïbisch-Amerikaanse literatuur. Zij is de dochter van Cubaanse ballingen in de VS. Zij werkte als journaliste voor o.m. The Miami Herald, en publiceerde tot op heden drie boeken: In Cuba I was a German Shepherd (1997), Loving Che (2003) en The Last War (2009). Haar roman In Cuba I was a German Shepherd werd verkozen tot The New York Times Notable Book of the Year en werd vertaald in acht talen. In Nederland is haar bekendheid echter nog bijzonder gering. Als jong auteur (geboren in Los Angeles, 1970) is zij na de éminence grise van de Caraïbische poëzie Derek Walcott, daarom een belangrijke kandidaat voor de Cola Debrot-lezing.

Ana Menéndez wordt ingeleid door Michiel van Kempen, bijzonder hoogleraar West-Indische Letteren aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Na de lezing is er gelegenheid tot vragenstellen en signeren van boeken.

Datum: woensdag 6 april 2011
Tijd: 20.00 uur
Entree: € 5,00, met korting (CJP enz.) € 3,75
Aanmelden voor deze lezing is verplicht, en kan uitsluitend via de website van de OBA, volg deze link
Aanmelden kan niet via de Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren!

Volg deze blogspot Caraibisch Uitzicht voor meer nieuws over Ana Menéndez en andere activiteiten op het gebied van de Caraïbische cultuur.

De Tweede Cola Debrot-lezing komt tot stand dankzij de Steun van het Nederlands Letterenfonds.

In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd

De Cubaans-Amerikaanse schrijfster Ana Menéndez geeft op 6 april de tweede Cola Debrot-lezing in de Openbare Bibliotheek van Amsterdam. Over haar roman In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd schreef The New York Times:

Beautifully written and hauntingly evocative, Ana Menéndez’s collection of interrelated stories In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd gives an unforgettable glimpse of what it is like for Cuban exiles to begin their new lives in Miami. Whether touching upon love, family, aspirations, or memories, these stories are full of gentle humor and trenchant observation, nostalgic remembrance and corrosive longing. Menéndez is masterful in gracefully demonstrating how our heritage and our origins continue to shape our lives, even when we are far away from home.

Ana Menéndez
In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 080213887X
Publisher: Grove Press
List Price: $12.00

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