The Halfway House
by Guillermo Rosales (Casa de los náufragos, 1987)
translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner (2009)
New Direction (2009)
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. 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.”
High praise, Trevor! I have had good experience of New Directions too, with César Aira – and they also publish other writers I’ve read in UK editions such as Robert Walser and Enrique Vila-Matas. Definitely one for me to get, and also a catalogue I must peruse. Thanks for alerting us to this one.
I do have to say, I hesitated to praise the book so highly because that might set some people up for disappointment. I hope that’s not the case here, where I finally thought I might as well tell how I felt!
Here in the U.S., they also publish W.G. Sebald’s three first novels and Roberto Bolaño’s back catalog. You’ll definitely have to check out New Direction’s catalog, John. You’ve probably seen it, but here’s their current seasonal catalog. I can’t find their fall/winter catalog online. Of the thirty-ish titles they are releasing through fall/winter, I didn’t see one work of fiction that I didn’t want to read, and I also saw a few books of poetry and some nonfiction that looked very interesting.
I’ve ordered Halfway House from the Book Depository. Now it joins the TBR pile…
Now, John, if you’re worried I’ve overhyped the book, just think of all of the dumb things I’ve said before you read it. That way, it’ll be that much better than expected! I’m pretty confident in the book, though. Hope it arrives soon and makes its way to the top of your TBR pile! (It’s a shorty that can be read in an hour or two)
You are on the hook with me as well on this one, Trevor. Just ordered it – based solely on your judgment.
Excellent news, Kevin! If I’m in a muddle over it, you and John are sure to straighten me out :).
Don’t forget: If you’re in the NYC area, there’s the release party for The Halfway House Thursday night. Details in link in post.
Loved your review of this book and am looking forward to reading it. I’m a huge chicana literature fan and am interested in expanding my reading horizons to include some Latino literature and this seems to fit the bill. Cheers!!
Thanks for dropping by Nadia. I think this is an excellent place to expand into more Latino literature. By the way, what are some of your favorite works of chicana literature? I had a friend focusing on chicana literature, and I think her favorite is Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo. I need to exapand my own reading horizons!
I love Sandra Cisneros! She is an amazing writer. Some of my other favorite Chicana writers are: Ana Castillo (So Far From God), Denise Chavez (Face of Angel or Loving Pedro Infante – both are great reads), Helena Viramontes (Under the Feet of Jesus) and Lorraine Lopez (Soy La Avon Lady and Other Stories). Of course I also love the writings of Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua. Its hard to pick a favorite, but I am going to go with Sandra Cisneros’, The House on Mango Street – groundbreaking!!
Sorry Trevor, but this one passed me right by. I guess the victim/victimizer image had the potential to be interesting but didn’t think it was realized. And I didn’t find much point in the hopelessness.
It is always interesting to me how a book can speak so strongly to one person and not much at all to another. It always makes me wonder how many books I’ve discounted that I would have loved had I read them at a different moment (like The Stranger) or how many I’ve loved I would havec discounted even only a week later.
I also have a problem with rave reviews because of their potential to really change the reading situation. When I read it, no one had said it was good, and I’m sure some of the joy I had in it was the joy of it exceeding what I expected.
Still, I very much enjoyed this book. Even thinking back on it now I find myself a bit amazed at how well I thought it was realized.
By the way, yesterday I began the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow. I find it strange that I enjoyed the lengthy discussion on telling and keeping silent. I also see what you mean that I might have to stop in a few pages to think about what I’m digging into.
Certainly I don’t think we all have to have the same opinion of every book — and I am happy for you that you found things in this book that I didn’t.
Hi, would you care to explain what you meant by the “incredible statements it makes about the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent totalitarian machine”? I failed to see much actual connection between societal questions and this book. It struck me more as a personal statement than anything else.
Excellent question, HK! I often write things here (readers beware!) without fully thinking through what I mean, and hopefully such questions will lead to good discussions. They certainly cause me to think and rethink, and that’s one of the best parts of a blog!
To be sure, I found the book to be highly personal from Rosales’s perspective. If the introduction is to be believed (my knowledge of Rosales comes from that and the brief information from New Directions), the narrator of The Halfway House was a standin for Rosales, who not only was disillusioned by the Cuban Revolution but also spent quite a bit of time in halfway houses. I do believe this book is an introspective.
However, I think the structure lends itself to a broader perspective too. It seemed that Rosales is casting this character as a type of casualty of the revolution. He’s not dead, but he feels dead. At first inspired by the ideas of the revolution, this character joined only to be warped by it. In that regard, I don’t think it is limited to Cuba’s revolution. Here is a type that is inspired by an idea which eventually consumes the very things the idea was supposed to bring about. In pursuing the idea, this type justifies actions that destroy not only the basis for the idea (the state of being the ideal was supposed to usher in) but also the type’s very nature, leaving only a shell of a human being who observes the utter destruction of society rather than the raising up. And, as showcased here, the individual finds himself or herself (another reason I don’t think it was meant to be entirely personal is the inclusion of Frances) complicit in the scheme, the pursuit of which led to his destruction as a human being.
I can see where my answer here can still be personal to several individuals and might not speak to a greater societal connection. But I think a society living under such a crushing realization and then under the totalitarian fist can also feel empty and hopeless. Certainly I can see, at the very least, a sense of submission not only to the regime but also to the inner-violence it fostered.
This may be a cop-out answer, but at this time of night, it’s all I’ve got! It’s more of an off-the-cuff defense than a well thought-out idea. I’d love to elaborate more and perhaps could do so better in a dialogue with other readers who can bat some of these issues around. I’d love to see where this takes us and our interpretation of The Halfway House.
Thank you for recommending this book. I put in in my TBR after your review. Just recently, it percolated to the top. I am glad it did. Despite your glowing review, perhaps because it was so old, I was really impressed by the tightness and depth of the novel. I wrote more on my reaction on my site (to go up tomorrow), but it largely mirrors yours.
I wanted to jump in (a year late) on HK’s question. I liked your response.
While I, as I suspect HK was, was more impressed with the personal aspects, there definitely are “actual connection[s] between societal questions and this book.” With respect to Cuba, the dream sequence you point out involving Fidel, the connection between Frances and William, the sequence where William questions Reyes about his time in Cuba, the deli-owner Montoya’s statement that the day he writes a history of Cuba “the world will end”, and Maximo who defends “his freedom to wander and destroy himself slowly” are all examples of where specifically Cuban social issues are injected directly into the novel.
What is awesome to me is that each of these incidents accomplishes more than a simple dissection of the failings of Cuba, but each does that as well. Reyes lived a privileged life in Cuba and, therefore, William holds him partly responsible for the Cuban Revolution. Even though Reyes is another whose life was destroyed by the Revolution, like William, he is also guilty. The same can be said for each of the others.
Beyond specifically Cuban issues, I think Rosales also made some telling points about American “societal questions”, including the government-funded halfway house system, social security, the treatment of poor generally, the things are society values, and the ways in which democratic capitalism is also susceptible to forms of totalitarianism and repression. These multiple layers, each building and reinforcing the other and the very personal examinations of human character, are what make this book outstanding.
It does not simply follow one strand, but braids many together to create a strength that would be missing if any of the cords were removed.