This week, I want to talk about Oscar Hijuelos. An amazing writer, Oscar Hijuelos (1951-2013) was born to Cuban immigrant parents in New York. He was also the first Hispanic author to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1990, he won the Pulitzer for his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989). The novel was later made into a film, The Mambo Kings (1992).
As a young child, he stayed away from his family due to an illness and lost touch with his original language, Spanish, though he spoke English fluently in his life and wrote his works in English. For a young child, and for much later, it must have been the cause of trauma for him, and he hints about it.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was a wildly popular novel and established him firmly as an author of repute. This novel was about two brothers and musicians, both Cubans, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who move to the United States and settle in New York. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love charts out a theme that has featured in his other works too. This theme is an examination of the lives of Cuban immigrants in the context of their lives in the US. In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, there is disappointment about the current state of the lives of the characters. But such is how life is and one must accept it on its terms.
The novel focusses on music. Musical rhythms form part of the novel’s narrative and many real-life mambo musicians make an appearance in the novel. The novel is a stylistic tour de force and has many amazing passages that describe love-making.
In one of his interviews, Oscar Hijuelos makes a pertinent point. He is talking about his life and referring to Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir. He says, “Even after I won the Pulitzer, I had those self doubts. Its nothing to do with my writing but how I grew up.”
This is an author who was the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer, talking about the difficulties during the early growing up years and how it has an impact on a person’s life much later too. Even after a person wins coveted international awards and is feted the world over. But in my view, such incertitude defines a person in stronger terms. They only reflect the confidence he has over his art. I think life itself is full of uncertainties, one’s existence in this world is just that. And I immensely admire Oscar Hijuelos for saying so in different words in his iconic novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and in his interviews and memoir and at other places. I would like to take your leave with a few quotes from his lovable novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
You could also watch this interesting clip on PBS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHbeEBCFXrM
And there is this excellent interview of Oscar Hijuelos at New Mexico in Focus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIZ5quwnOlE
Everything was different back when; 125th Street was jumping with clubs, there was less violence, there were fewer beggars, more mutual respect between people; he could take a late-night stroll from the apartment on La Salle Street, walk down Broadway, cut east on 110th Street to Central Park, and then walk along its twisting paths and across the little bridges over streams and rocks, enjoying the scent of the woods and nature’s beauty without a worry.
(The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1989, page 11)
A sea of scratches and a trumpet line, a habanera bass, a piano playing sentimental, sad minor chords, his brother Nestor Castillo in some faraway place in a world without light, raising the trumpet to his lips, eyes closed, face rippled by dreamy concentration . . . the melody of Ernesto Lecuona’s ”Juventud. “
(The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1989, page 12)
They formed a mambo band; that is, a traditional Latin dance band given balls by saxophones and horns. This orchestra consisted of a flute, violin, piano, sax, two trumpets, two drummers, one playing an American kit and the other a battery of congas.
(The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1989, page 23)
That was Nestor down on his knees playing with the children, pushing a toy truck into a city of alphabet blocks, the children climbing on his back and riding him like a horse, while in his head there bloomed a thousand images of Maria: Maria naked, Maria in a sun hat, Maria’s brown nipple filling his mouth, Maria with a cigarette, Maria commenting on the beauty of the moon, Maria dancing long-legged, her body wobbling in perfect rhythm in a chorus of coffee-and-cream-colored women in feathered turbans, Maria counting the doves in a plaza, Maria sucking a pineapple batida through a straw, Maria writhing, lips damp and face red from kisses, in ecstasy, Maria growling like a cat, Maria dabbing her mouth with lipstick, Maria pulling up a flower…
(The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1989, page 42)