For me, one of the most exciting publishing houses is New Directions. Consistently they release important world literature that is innovative in its form and substance and in how those two comingle. While I don’t suggest they aren’t business-minded, their output suggests their main goal is not necessarily to top the New York Times bestseller list but rather is to provide us with literature of true quality. They are succeeding.
This Thursday, May 21, if you’re in the New York City area, they are hosting a Cuban themed party, celebrating their publication of Guillermo Rosales’s incredible—incredible—The Halfway House (Casa de los náufragos, 1987; tr. from the Spanish by Anna Kushner, 2009). A semi-autobiographical allegory, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and one of the best books I’ve read period. It is stunning in its execution and its content—indisputably the work of a literary master. Unfortunately, this gem is one of only two books we have from Rosales (he left only this one and El Juego de la Viola, which is also forthcoming from New Directions). He destroyed the rest of his work before, in 1993 at age forty-seven, committing suicide.
The highly literate Rosales spent time in several halfway houses. He considered himself a double exile: once from his country and again from his fellow Cubans in America:
The house said “boarding home” on the outside, but I knew that it would be my tomb. It was one of those marginal refuges where the desperate and hopeless go–crazy ones for the most part, with a smattering of old people abandoned by their families to die of loneliness so they won’t screw up life for the winners.
Rosales’s narrator, the dispassionate William Figueres, is also highly literate, having “read all of Proust when I was fifteen years old, Joyce, Miller, Sartre, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albee, Ionesco, Beckett . . . .” He spent twenty years in the Cuban Revolution, and has now left to go to America. His Cuban relatives in America looked forward to his arrival.
They thought a future winner was coming, a future businessman, a future playboy, a future family man who would have a future house full of kids, and who would go to the beach on weekends and drive fine cars and wear brand-name clothing like Jean Marc and Pierre Cardin. The person who turned up at the airport the day of my arrival was instead a crazy, nearly toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward that very day because he eyed everyone in the family with suspicion and, instead of hugging and kissing them, insulted them.
Though we know Figueres is not completely stable, we also know he is not completely insane. He’s been gutted by the Cuban Revolution and the ensuing oppression, ending up in the United States and this halfway house not so much because he’s crazy but because he’s completely lost in existence. Indeed, the most recent Spanish edition of this book was titled La Casa de los Náufragos (“The House of the Shipwrecked”). When Figueres enters the halfway house, unlike most of the other residents he sees what it is: filthy, abusive, cast-off, pure federally-funded depravity. The other residents apparently don’t notice, and this sets Figueres apart. He just doesn’t seem to care that much. His apathy extends to his dispassionate description of the other residents and the way the owner and manager abuse them all.
Which brings up a point that must be made. This is an exceedingly cruel book. If it weren’t for the issues it’s rotating around, the incredible statements it makes about the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent totalitarian machine, The Halfway House‘s cruelty would be unbearable. It’s not that it’s exceedingly violent, but the disinterested narration (so perfect here) brings the reality much closer to the surface. Figueres has been the victim of much hatred and violence. We pity him and perhaps even respect his apparent meekness. Where the book turns on its head is where Figueres becomes complicit in the cruelty. There’s no great transition. Figueres is meek and cruel, understanding and apathetic. Rosales perfectly imbues these attributes into an ambiguous yet credible narrator, making in Figueres an excellent portrayal of a great tragedy as well as a version of Rosales himself. In his excellent introduction to the book José Manuel Prieto says, “Rosales, like no other Cuban author before him, knew how to leave behind the narrow road of victimhood for the larger, more arduous one of full responsibility. He looked deep into the tragedy and found himself to be a part of it.”
The book becomes more disturbing and hopeful when a new resident moves in who, like Figueres, is not insane but lost. Frances is also an exile from the Revolution and her own family, and Figueres is drawn to her at once, being both tender and cruel. In one portion of the book, she and Figueres walk around Little Havana:
She looks at me with tired eyes.
“I think I’m dead inside,” she says.
The book is not just worth reading because of its content, though. The style is simple, as shown in the passages above, yet all the more poignant because of that. Also, the structural integrity was astonishing to me. I just didn’t expect it. Full of leitmotifs that never become overdone, the style has a subtle rhythm that can make your heart pound even in its quiet moments. And the penetrating look at the Revolution and its effects are more fully realized when Rosales has Figueres describe seven dreams throughout the story. In these dreams, Fidel Castro himself becomes a character (he already was, though). In one, Castro is brought into a room in a coffin. The coffin opens up and Fidel rises and gets out, asking for a cup of coffee. “Well, we’re already dead. Now you’ll see that doesn’t solve anything, either.”