In the eyes of the world, Cuban composer Israel Levis appears to be a successful man. He wrote the quintessential “Cuban” song as a young man, a favor to his secret love, the singer Rita Valladares. Now his song,
"Rosas Puras," is famous the world over. Even the Nazis who imprison him, believing him to be Jewish, love his music – in fact, it is the scraps of extra food he receives at the concerts he is forced to give for their high-ranking officers that allow him to survive the war.
Levis, however, feels like a failure. No one remembers his more serious pieces, and he knows he will never achieve the lasting greatness of his idols – Bach, Ravel and other classical composers. Although he had been told since childhood that he was a genius, with a God-given gift, he finds that his abilities and fame can’t defend him or his loved ones from the Nazis. When he returns to Cuba after the war, an invalid, and worse still, unable to compose anything, the little green tattoo on his arm reminds him daily of the horrors he has seen.
He spends his days thinking of his past. Never married, he feels that his life has been somehow wasted because he has produced no heirs. His love for Valladares remains secret (although the reader learns that she loves him too, and gave him plenty of opportunities to approach her in the past) and painful; he watches her marry, divorce and remarry multiple times in silent suffering. He is tortured by homosexual tendencies that he can admit to no one. The deaths of his family and friends, and all the “what-ifs” he feels for them, haunt him. In the end, he achieves some measure of content (anyway, he doesn’t commit suicide, as he had been considering), but there are many passages that are real tearjerkers.
A Simple Habana Melody highlights how political crises can impact the lives of non-political people, like it or not. Levis flees Cuba for Paris to escape from scrutiny and persecution by the Cuban secret police, who have recently assassinated his best friend and lyricist, Manny Cortez. There, he joins a large community-in-exile of Cuban artists and musicians, and finds much popularity and success. However, just as he failed to see how the political situation at home was putting him and his family at risk, he fails to see how the activities of the Nazis in Europe could possibly be a threat to him, a foreigner and an artist. He is dating a Jewish woman with known ties to the underground, and on the surface his name, Israel Levis, appears to be very Jewish, but he does not see any danger. Then, he is called for an “interview”, and the fact that his physician father decided to circumcise his infant sons seals his fate. Neither his status, his citizenship, nor his devout Catholicism can save him. As he blindly continues his day to day routines, assuming that somehow everything will be okay, the reader wants to shake him, to yell “Hey, wake up!” Once the chain of events is set in motion, it predictably worsens, until finally Levis is arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
Levis’ experiences and travails, both real and psychological, are brought to life through the beautiful, poetic prose of author Oscar Hijuelos, who won a Pulitzer Prize with an earlier novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This book, a compelling combination of love story and history lesson, with its revealing glimpse into differing perceptions of success and failure, is another impressive addition to his resume. Look for more good things in the future from this talented writer.