Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ruins by Achy Obejas

Achy Obejas
205 pages, drama, character study
Found: A signed first edition (!) at a secondhand bookstore somewhere in India

Usnavy, a proud veteran of the Cuban revolution, is as much of a straight-shooter as it is possible to be. Despite the deprivations that have made life miserable for him and his family, he refuses to do anything illegal. The other employees at the bodega (government ration supply store) may sell products out of the back before they can be parceled out, but Usnavy refuses. He is happy to do the most miserable of government jobs - and be the one who gets abused about the lack of supplies or the need to collect funds for public projects - because he truly believes in his country and the purpose of the Revolution.

Where everyone else has given up, Usnavy continues to go on, an idealist till the end.

And then one of his best friends leaves the country by boat, and recruits Usnavy's help. And Usnavy is suddenly compromised for the first time. And suddenly Usnavy becomes truly aware of the deprivations and the ways he could make money to better himself and his family's position.

Hunger and food shortages

This book is best at getting you into the head of someone dealing with great deprivations, especially those caused by food shortages. There is no way that the government can provide enough food for people, so they are left to scrounge around for whatever they can find (or buy, or steal, or sell). Usnavy's constantly empty, rumbling stomach is an unceasing companion. The author conveys this all-consuming hunger so viscerally that I could feel my own stomach twisting as I read it:

Usnavy watched as [his wife] Lidia served up a sandwich for [their daughter] Nena that he recognized as having what looked like a reddish-brown meat. His immediate fear was that it was cat flesh. As a delighted Nena ate - complimenting Lidia, savoring the little bits of what looked like onions - Lidia kept busy, avoiding Usnavy's eye.... Of all people, of course, he knew that the only ingredient she'd gotten legally for that sandwich was the bread. (35)
But no sooner had Usnavy pulled up the bread and seen the flat layer of pith covered in seasoning, than he recognized its true provenance: These were pieces of a blanket normally used for mopping floors which [their neighbor] Rosita had beaten and marinated in spices and a little beef broth.... At least it wasn't cat meat, he thought. 
Then he bowed his head in dismay and disbelief. (37-8) 
What happens when basic necessities are only available on the black market, and you have to do illegal (and sometimes immoral) things to get the cash to pay for them? Especially if you believe so strongly in the rightness of the government and the society that you are a part of?

These are all moral questions that Usnavy struggles with in this book, and the constant hunger lends a sense of urgency and desperation to everything. What won't someone do when faced with such a situation?

Fear of flight

Usnavy spends much of the book trying to prevent his daughter from running away - from fleeing to the US, which beckons more and more with every day of starvation. It seems so close, and yet it is so far from everything that Usnavy ever wanted for her, or for them.

Usnavy has always been made fun of for being light-skinned, having red hair, and being so naive as to truly believe in the revolution. But he has also been fighting for the revolutionary values because he does not want things to change. He wants his struggle in the war to be worth something; he wants his country that he fought for to be worth something. And somewhere in his mind he worries that it is maybe not worth anything after all. What is the use of a country that can't even provide its own people with food to prevent starvation?

So he vehemently opposes the flood of people leaving the island for brighter shores, but also wonders when he will have to follow them. When he will himself turn traitor to the cause that he spent his life serving.

And of course that terrifies him.

Gender issues

I cannot write a review without examining the very delicate but incisive discussion of gender issues in this book. 

First, Usnavy's wife and daughter seem like women who have been forced to give up their desires for the sake of the man in their life (i.e., Usnavy). Lidia, Usnavy's wife, used to be a driver for a hospital, and, as Usnavy mentions, was "one of the first women to really excel at the job." However, due to budget cuts she was laid off and not provided with an alternative job that would pay appropriately. So now she is stuck in their tiny apartment, trying to eke out meals from the tiny amount of supplies that her husband brings home. 

Their daughter, Nena, is in a similarly stuck position. Not only will Usnavy not allow her to break any of the oppressive government rules, but she is stuck between school and home because he will not allow her to access his bicycle - not even as a loan! 

While Usnavy does give some thought to his family's position (especially in terms of hunger), his thoughts are mostly on himself. He never asks whether Lidia and Nena are ok with giving up opportunities to follow his principles. Usnavy spends most of his time outside of the house, whether at the bodega or playing dominoes with his friends; when he is not at home, he still takes up most of the space with his large stained-glass lamp (more on this below). It is a very claustrophobic situation for the two women, and there seems to be little thought on Usnavy's part about whether they really want a life like this.

Second, the novel masterfully details how relatively uneducated, ordinary people deal with trans issues. The "son" of one of Usnavy's friends is in the US, where "he" is reportedly doing well. When "he" comes to visit, however, it turns out that she has transitioned. While her father knew (and seems accepting), he had been ashamed to admit that his son was now a daughter. And his fear appears to be justified when another friend reacts violently to the news. But Usnavy does not seem to have a problem with the situation; sure, it is a bit unusual, but then as a kid she was always different. I would be very interested to hear the thoughts of a trans individual on this aspect of the book, particularly how they read Usnavy's reaction to her transition. 

A jeweled mystery

Usnavy's life is consumed by a large piece of his family heritage: a beautiful glass lamp that not only provides some comfort and beauty to his otherwise bare, meager life, but also inspires him to make changes to that life later in the novel.

To relieve the gloom, the family's room - a breadbox, a shoebox - was illuminated by a most extraordinary lamp. Were it not for the sheer size of it, Usnavy could have built a second floor - a barbacoa - like many of his neighbors. Made of multicolored stained glass and shaped like an oversized dome, the lamp was wild. Almost two meters across, the cupola dropped down with a mild green vine-and-leaf motif that flowered into luscious yellow and red blossoms, then became a crimson jungle with huge feline eyes. (In truth, they were peacock feathers, but Usnavy had never seen or dreamt of peacocks, so he imagined them as lions or, at least, cats.) The armature consisted of branches at the top, black and fat to resemble the density of tree bark. They narrowed as they neared the edge, until they were pencil thin and delicate. The borders were shaped with the unevenness of leaves and eyelids, petals and orbs, in a riotous yet precise design. (17)

This glorious lamp is the source of Usnavy's greatest joy. He knows it has something to do with his family's past; it was a feature at his mother's house in his childhood, but she had never explained its provenance or how it had come into their family's possession. He spends hours just looking at the lamp, polishing it, making sure it glows with all possible intensity. This obsession seems to take precedent over everything else in his life, including his family members.

It is only when a chance encounter shows him that there are other lamps like his (although smaller, less elaborate, not as beautiful) that he realizes he is sitting on a goldmine. He begins to use his knowledge of the lamp and its brothers to make some money, to improve the family's state of living. He sells the other lamps and the glass from the other lamps, but he is reluctant to touch his own unless absolutely desperate. And so he begins to walk a fine line: neglecting his official work in favor of an alternative industry of selling glass, while also refusing to allow anyone to see his own lamp. Eventually all of this has to catch up with him, somehow.

I absolutely loved this novel, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is both a good literary investigation of life in Cuba during the early years of the Special Period and a brilliantly written and paced novel.

Further Reading

"Was the 'Special Period' a Cuban Invention?" by Dmitri Prieto (Havana Times) 
"Cuba’s 'Special Period' Remembered" by Irina Pino (Havana Times) 
"The Maleconazo, Cuba’s First Popular Revolt, Happened 23 Years Ago" by Ivan Garcia (Translating Cuba)

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  1. I would love to read this book. It sounds thought provoking and just reading this review makes me question how moral I am. Usnavy's situation is not unique. There are many other people who are torn between family and fighting for what they believe in. Usnavy seems to be so tangled in his revolutionary ideas that it seems to be making him a little selfish.

    1. Indeed! And because it's told from his perspective, you truly see how little notice he gives his family.