A story portraying the lives of two Cuban musicians.
Cesar and Nestor (who have many brothers and sisters) share a love of music-Cuban music-and more specifically, the mambo, but, in every other respect, they are very different people. Cesar is larger-than-life, he's extravagant, totally masculine and his baritone voice, when singing "songs of love" manages to capture the heart of every woman who hears it. Nestor is Cesar's opposite. Nestor is frail and melancholy and seems to simply recede into the wallpaper. While Cesar beds every woman who dares to look his way, Nestor pines away for Maria, a woman he knew only briefly, to the extent of composing twenty-two variations of his musical tribute to her, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul."
In 1949, Cesar and Nestor decide to emigrate to New York City because "that's where the music is." Cuba was no longer "home" to the habanera, the rumba, the mambo. The music had emigrated to New York, so Cesar and Nestor decide that's where they should be, too.
Arriving in New York City, Cesar and Nestor find plenty of music makers to emulate, but the one they care about the most is Desi Arnaz, who once worked in the same orchestra as Cesar. Cesar and Nestor tour America's east coast in a flamingo pink bus, dressed in suits of black and flamingo pink. Their records (I mean records, this is the early 50s) sell well and in 1955, they achieve their dream when they appear on an episode of "I Love Lucy." As the years go by, Cesar grows more florid and sure of himself, while Nestor grows more and more withdrawn, always retreating into the "self-help" book he carries with him everywhere.
THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE concerns more than Cesar and Nestor, however. This is a book about their families and friends as well and some of the best sections are narrated by Eugenio, Nestor's son. Hijuelos' writing is as good in this book as in all of his others, i.e., it is perfect. He really takes us back to the 1950s and the era of big bands and Latin music. Most of all, though, he takes us into the world of Cesar and Nestor Castillo and we emerge from the book feeling as if we'd gotten to know real people, people who lived and loved and, most of all, loved music. This is a joyous book, but it's also one that's sad and poignant and bittersweet.
I think Oscar Hijuelos is, by far, the best Cuban-American writing to day. I would certainly recommend THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE to anyone looking for a book with strong characters, to people who love Latin American literature or simply to anyone who loves a good story.
It was such a bittersweet book, such an undercurrence of sadness and loss. It was essentially, a lament to old age and wasted youth. The detail is incredible, the emotions very real. It effectively captures the horrible sinking inevitability of death.
Hijelo's characters are wild, if not dislikable. This is perhaps the finest point of the piece; the characters are utterly human and terribly flawed.
Cesor's incredible libedo is at the forefront of the work, and there is a sense of humidity, sweat and the smells of sex that pervade the work. Hijelo should be admired for being able to conjuer up such senses. I found it a sensual read, however I disagree with many who describe the sex as sensual. It seemed very coarse, but this is not a criticism, it served its coarse purposes.
The only criticism I have is the distracting nature of many of the sex scenes. The sheer amount of them seemed somewhat unnecessary, however, they began to fade once Cesar aged.
Over all, innovative and superb.