Reviewed by Kevin Kane
Achy Obejas’s third novel, Ruins, opens in the summer of 1994 when Fidel Castro lifted the restriction preventing Cubans from fleeing their country. During this time of excitement and sadness, people gather their belongings and piece together junk rafts to support them the ninety miles to Florida. Those still loyal to Cuba or unable to leave must attempt to survive the dilapidated economy or learn to harness the power of the dollar, sometimes even scavenging through abandoned and collapsed houses. The main character of the novel, Usnavy, faces hard choices between his nostalgic ideals of communism and a hard scrabble life for his wife and daughter.
Usnavy, a staunch believer in communism and an early revolutionary, lives with his family rationing meager stores of food. After establishing the conditions of Cuban life, Obejas propels the story when one of Usnany’s long-time friends asks him for help and supplies to leave the country. They arrive at Cojimar, a beach, to find a scene of complete chaos: “Cojimar is all dog’s teeth, a snarling bank of coral and junk—groups of people hammered away at their rafts, tying ropes around pieces of rubber, metal kegs, and plastic jugs for buoyancy.” Usnavy feels shame from helping his friend and regret for betraying his country by giving him supplies meant for everyone to share. Afterward, the erosion of his beliefs accelerates when he finds a crushed but still beautiful stained glass lamp in a fallen house. The lamp reminds Usnavy of his only family heirloom: a monstrosity of stained glass hanging precariously from the ceiling of his hovel. Having grown up in a small, poor community bordering Guantanamo Bay, the swirling, bright expanse of glass and light remain Usnavy’s sole possession of worth, and only tie to his single mother.
Obejas masterfully contrasts the resourcefulness, stubborn survivalism, and reluctant friendship evinced by her characters with the sadness of the Cuban situation. At one point, Usnavy begins to wish for things for his family and realizes that “It had never occurred to him in the past to wish for anything.” The weight of his family’s poverty, surrounded by that of his neighbors—those choosing not to succumb to the dollar and the black market—cause him to weep and collapse. These scenes, though heart-breaking, remain tempered by the original, sometimes biting humor between characters, and dream-like moments as when Jacinto, Usnavy’s neighbor, urinates publicly, receiving money from an amused tourist.
The ideas in Ruins pile atop one another like one of the makeshift rafts sailing those ninety miles, and, at times, the weight causes the focus to dip and weave. Obejas, a Cuban émigré at an early age has chronicled many aspects of Cuban life in her previous work and her knowledge helps save the sometimes weighty novel from capsizing. To do this, she employs her skills as poet and journalist to steady the raft. She tackles many themes in Ruins including nationalism, identity, loyalty, religion and generational shifts but the idea of what constitutes a worthy existence revolves tightly around Usnavy. Is his an idealistic life? One of abject poverty, where eating marinated strips of blanket becomes normal? Is it worth fighting for his family’s happiness at the expense of his own principles? Or proving he is not salao, or unlucky, a title plastered on him by both his friends and family? Though we ask these questions, Usnavy never does, and his failure to examine his own life sends him blindly careening from event to event. Unfortunately, the close third-person narrator also fails to investigate these same questions.
Obejas’s title, Ruins, encompasses many aspects of Cuban life and history that ended in piles of rubble: the lives of Cubans, paradigm shifts of accepted sexuality, and a depressed economy. Though accurate, I find the title skates toward too-perfect, too-sculpted as the coincidences become too much to believe. When Usnavy happens to get asked by his friend to drive a foreigner around Havana—another chink in his armor of belief, many characters become wrapped together in a single swoop. Toward the end of Ruins, the symbols dominate the page and the reader will begin to know—just as they always knew—what will happen to Usnavy’s prized lamp.
Even though the reader will anticipate the end, dread still creeps up. Usnavy may be a slightly pathetic character, but there is still something inherently real about him, something tragically human—and most people don’t want to witness the collapse of a person’s entire life. Through the juxtaposition of dread and empathy, Obejas moves the reader—something all writers strive for. She accomplishes this by exercising restraint toward the end of the novel, brazenly—and inspiringly—leaving open the possibility of Usnavy’s stubborn survival after the final page. And, once again, she does this beautifully, utilizing her skills as poet to accent her prose, as when Usnavy digs through another fallen house: “It was roots and earth, black and fertile and wet. But his hand was wounded, the bone jagged, his fingers stabbed by shards of colored glass and bloated like petals on a flower.”
Kevin Kane is an M.F.A. candidate in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.Posted on March 11, 2010 at 2:46 PM