What happens when the revolution’s over? The celebration’s a thing of the past and the banners are long taken down from public buildings, posters of former heroes torn and faded from neglect. One might quip that the Democrats are feeling this depression right now, but things have truly unraveled in full force for the followers of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution. They feel real pain.
Author Achy Obejas, herself a native Cuban, writes that on the island nation just about everyone has forgotten the fervor that once brought Castro to power. (Castro is now languishing and now letting his brother run the country.) People leave the country for Miami — 90 nautical miles away — on anything that will float and deal with U.S. Immigration when in the arms of loving relatives who are already U.S. citizens. To the Cubans, America is a destination, not a dangerous choice.
All this comes as a shocking blow to Usnavy Martín Levya, the bizarrely named protagonist of Ruins Obejas’ brilliant novel of bitter betrayal and lost dreams. Usnavy (named for the passing boats in Guantamamo Bay in happier times) finds himself to be a relic in Havana in a hot summer of 1994. Although he remains true to the Communist cause, working at a bodega, doling out pitiful portions of stale food to those who will wait in line, he notices that others are succumbing to capitalist ways. They’re finding backstreet deals to traffic in dollars. Selling what they have of value and for cars and other luxuries.
Usnavy sneers at this degrading behavior until he sees his best friends building rafts to ride the waves to Miami. The United States? Land of cash and no soul? Sex to sell trinkets on TV? (Never mind that Usnavy’s TV doesn’t work.) Bling? (If Usnavy knew the word “bling,” he would surely use it.) Most of all, he is sure the U.S. is ruining youth and he has a young daughter, Nena, coming of age and vulnerable to the degenerative changes going on in Havana. He feels protective and unsure.
Usnavy is beautifully characterized as a man who feels deeply but appears stiff and unbending to others. His wife Lidia and daughter Nena don’t understand when he can’t let them have the small indulgence of “pretend” meat (which is fairly disgusting) or let them make money in unorthodox ways. They don’t want life at the co-op, and he is losing them.
But Usnavy has his own indulgence. It is a glorious Tiffany (or is it a Tiffany?) lamp he inherited from his mother. When the electricity is working, it lights up the entire apartment, and some come to share in its yellow glow. A chance encounter leads him to discover how the lamps are repaired and how they were made in America. He also discovers that his last name, Levya, marks him as a Jew whose ancestors migrated to Cuba. This shocks Usnavy, a Communist atheist, more than he can understand. He’s standing on quicksand, and everything is giving way. Soon, in an attempt to authenticate his lamp, he starts to remove glass pieces. Soon he is selling them. Then in a fit of madness, he is looking in wrecks of buildings for other Tiffanies, which he never finds.
He risks it all. His beloved lamp, his wife and daughter, all his friends, just to stay stubbornly, proudly a man of principle. And that’s what he is in the end: principled. Is it worth it for Usnavy? It may have to be. His pride is what he has to live on, in the ruins.
Ruins was given the Honorable Mention Award by the Society of Midland Authors in Chicago, as one of the best novels of 2009.