Thursday, July 20, 2006

Tomorrow they will kiss

That’s the title of the new novel by Cuban-American author Eduardo Santiago.

Tomorrow they will kiss is the story of Graciela Altamira and her struggle to make a new life for herself in the United States. The story is told not only from her perspective, but also by her two “friends” Caridad and Imperio in alternating chapters.

Graciela hails from a the small town of Palmagria (a fictional version of Santiago’s own hometown of Manzanillo) where everyone knows each other but more importantly everyone knows the intimate details of everybody else’s life. Imperio tells us:

Palmagria was a very small town that followed very specific rules. If you grew up there, as Graciela did, you knew that from the cradle…

There was no gray in Palmagria and the rules were tougher on women…

Girls who couldn’t live by those rules moved to La Habana. It was only a few hours away by bus, but as far as the people of Palmagria were concerned, it was on another continent.

In La Habana, there were no rules. People did what they wished without worrying about what others thought. In La Habana women could wear two-piece bathing suits at the beach, live in their own apartments, dye their hair different colors, have love affairs with married men, or black men, even other women if they wished. But they couldn’t do such things in Palmagria.

Por Dios! If a woman moved to La Habana for some reason, to further her education or just enjoy a different way of life, people back in Palmagria still whispered that she went away to be a lesbiana or a prostituta. That’s why the very few who left, and I can count them on hand, never returned, not even for visits.

Graciela should have left as soon as she could and never come back. She never fit in. She had different ideas and the more she tried to live like the rest of us the crazier she got.
Graciela lives by her own code eschewing the mores and violating the taboos of small town Cuba. Eventually her “mistakes” lead her to an exile that she didn’t exactly choose. You see Graciela’s exile wasn’t a political one, but rather a personal one. Her estranged husband, who Graciela had shamed back in Palmagria, brought her to the United States because the Revolution would not allow him to depart alone, leaving his wife and two sons as wards of the state.

Determined to start anew Graciela embarks on her new life with optimism, yet the past haunts her in 1960’s Union City, New Jersey, where the only people she really knows are the ever judgmental and envious Caridad and Imperio. The three work at a toy factory, along with several other Cuban women, and share a ride to work each morning. It’s in that carpool van where the one thing all women have in common is discussed: telenovelas. Whenever the subject of conversation in the van becomes contentious, they quickly return to discussing the telenovelas and try to answer the ever-present question of when the protagonists will kiss.

Although we root for Graciela, we can see that certainly she contributed to her present situation by compounding the questionable decisions in her life. Yet we also see that, as a free spirit, the customs and the people of Palmagria constricted her. Imperio and Caridad are jealous because of their own inability to break out of what is expected of them and live their lives as free individuals. Constantly concerned about Graciela’s behavior and how it will reflect on them, they gossip incessantly about her. They don't seem to understand that, to borrow a line from The Wizard of Oz, they're not in palmagria anymore.

Eduardo Santiago is a gifted storyteller, I could not help wanting to choke Graciela’s “friends” especially Imperio, but the book was little foreign to me. There are no sympathetic male characters in the book, with the exception of Graciela’s boss at the toy factory, Mr. O’Reilly, and we only catch a glimpse of him through Graciela’s eyes.

In an interview in the back of the book Santiago addresses the question of the weak men in the book:
Shortly after we arrived in the United States, my grandfather was diagnosed throat cancer. He had a tracheotomy that removed much of his throat, most significantly his vocal cords. So here was a man who had lost his country, his money, his ability to work, and his voice. He was a once-powerful patriarch, rendered powerless. The men in my family lived lives of shame; most of them helped bring Fidel Castro to power only to be betrayed and humiliated by him. You may disagree but that’s the way they saw it and it caused them to be to distant, depressed, or drunk. The men also found it difficult to form an intimate group. When I listened to them. I heard nothing.
Those are Santiago’s experiences but not mine. In my family at least, the men were called to ever-higher levels of responsibility. My grandfather a retired doctor in Cuba had to return to practice in the U.S. to make a living. My father swept floors in hospitals, never losing sight of the dream to become a doctor himself. Make no mistake, the women in my family were strong too but the men certainly were not weak. Obviously, I can’t project my personal experiences onto a work of fiction, but the characterization of Cuban exile men as depressed drunks made me uncomfortable.

The idea that Graciela would remain committed to acquaintances, that are plainly poisonous to her well-being, simply because she knew them in Cuba also goes against my personal experiences.

The book ends rather abrubtly, considering it's narrated by the participants in retrospect. In the end we don’t know what becomes of Graciela, but are left to assume that she is better equipped to handle life in the United States than her friends. She is looking forward rather than backwards to Cuba and Palmagria. Perhaps there's another book in the making. Only Eduardo Santiago knows.

Tomorrow they will kiss is a quick read I'll recommend it though I think women will enjoy it more than men.

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