Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir
“When he was only five years old, the Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos lost the Spanish language, and with it his sense of himself as Cuban. Decades later, he recovered his Cuban-ness by writing about it. His latest book, the memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes, is the story of how he did it.”
When he was only five years old, the Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos lost the Spanish language, and with it his sense of himself as Cuban. Decades later, he recovered his Cuban-ness by writing about it. His latest book, the memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes, is the story of how he did it.
Mr. Hijuelos is best known for his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, making him the first Latino writer to win the award. The book, steeped in nostalgia, music, and sex, was hugely popular with critics and readers, and it made Mr. Hijuelos’ reputation. He wrote six more books between Mambo Kings and the publication of his new memoir, but none has had the impact of his second novel. The story he tells in Thoughts Without Cigarettes, however, is often as compelling as his best fiction.
Oscar Hijuelos was born in 1951 in Morningside Heights, on the upper West Side of Manhattan, to immigrant Cuban parents. His father Pascual and mother Magdalena had grown up in rural eastern Cuba, he in a family of well-to-do farmers, she in upper middle class comfort, with servants and vacations in Spain, until her father’s sudden death reduced the family’s circumstances. Pascual courted Magdalena in Cuba; they married, and moved to New York in the 1940s, settling in a cramped and rundown railroad flat in an ethnically mixed neighborhood of Latinos, Irish, Italians, and African Americans. Pascual exemplified the immigrant work ethic, holding down two jobs as a food service worker at a hotel and at a restaurant owned by Columbia University.
Oscar, his brother José, and their parents lived in a domestic world that was permeated by Cuba, its language, food, and music. No English was spoken in the home, even though José, seven years older than Oscar, had learned it at school. Oscar recalls that as a small child, he “spoke Spanish as cheerfully and capaciously as any four-year-old Cuban boy.” But even then, before he lost his native tongue, his looks marked him as different from most of the Cubans he knew. He had curly blond hair and fair skin like his Irish great-great-grandfather: “White as white could be, I had hazel eyes, and altogether an appearance that, given my parents’ more ‘Spanish’ looks, set me apart from them.”
The defining trauma of his childhood, and the experience that would shape so much of his subsequent life, occurred when he was four, during a trip to Cuba with his mother. While in his parents’ homeland, he contracted nephritis, a severe—and in those days life-threatening—infection. It was a bitter and terribly cruel irony for Oscar that during a vacation that he describes as idyllic, in a place he adored and where he felt loved and cherished, he contracted a disease that nearly killed him and resulted in his being hospitalized for a year, first in Connecticut and then a “convalescent” facility in Manhattan. During this time, when he was separated from his family and other Cubans, he absorbed English from hospital workers and other sick children, and lost Spanish: “English in, Spanish out, or at least deeply submerged inside me.”
“For the longest time,” Hijuelos recalls, “all I would know was that I had gotten sick in Cuba, from Cuban microbios, that the illness had blossomed in the land of my forbears, the country where I had once been loved and whose language fell as music on my ears. Of course, diseases happen anywhere, and children get sick under any circumstances, but what I would hear for years afterward from my mother was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process, of my healing, would turn my own ‘Cubaness’ into air.”
These early chapters are some of the best in Thoughts Without Cigarettes. Author Hijuelos’ recounting of the Cuba trip is wonderfully sensuous and detailed (though necessarily re-constructed, since he surely couldn’t have remembered all that he saw and experienced as a four year old), vividly evocative of the island’s natural beauty and tropical fecundity. He conjures up this lost Eden so expertly that his subsequent fall into sickness, isolation, and loneliness is all the more poignant. The reader shares the boy’s delight and wonderment as he discovers the land of his forebears, and feels empathy for the suffering child who was torn from this prelapsarian world.
In the first sections of Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Mr. Hijuelos infuses the stuff of day-to-day life with drama, and sometimes magic. His writing is colored with nostalgia for what he briefly enjoyed—a connection to his roots and a clear sense of who he was—and deep sorrow over its sudden loss.
The assured blend of melancholy and sensuality that captivated readers of Mambo Kings is very much evident in Mr. Hijuelos’ memoir. He brings us right inside that cramped apartment, redolent of cigarette smoke, rum, and Cuban food, inviting us to all-night parties where happily inebriated guests dance to classic Cuban mambos and boleros, while his often irritable mother sits on the couch obstinately refusing the fun.
But what really pained Magdalena was her son’s refusal to speak the language they once shared. He understood her Spanish, but he always responded in English. “Do you understand me?” became her oft-repeated refrain, signifying a gulf that is more than just linguistic. It’s as if she had to convince herself that this tow-headed, light-eyed, fair-skinned, English-preferring boy indeed was her hijo. By the time he became an adolescent, he “really had so little identity of my own—except as this ‘son of Cubanos’ who had once been sick and didn’t much identify with Latin culture in general. . . . I spent those years trying to become anything else but what I should have been, Oscar Hijuelos.”
As a young man, Mr. Hijuelos was self-conscious in the extreme and self-flagellating; he was acutely aware of having lost something fundamental and precious: “The same questions I had about myself kept repeating: Who and what am I? Why is it that I hate seeing what I see when I look in a mirror? Why is it that every now and then I suddenly turn around because of a voice saying, ‘Cuba, Cuba . . .’” He felt that “something had been torn out from inside me, like a kidney, curiously enough, in my mind shaped like the island of Cuba.” It is, of course, the return of the barely repressed, the Cuban-ness he feels estranged from but longs for.
Mr. Hijuelos is quite candid, even unsparing about the young man he was—a “pensive fuck” who, during the height of the counterculture, tried to be hip (he hung out in Greenwich Village with his guitar) but more often felt uptight and inhibited. And he’d experienced a second trauma—the death of his father, at age 55, from overwork and too many drinks and cigarettes.
The author’s grief was compounded by guilt over having brushed off his father’s attentions during what turned out to be the last moments they would spend together. But his literary life began after his father’s death. At City College of New York, professors encouraged his writing. He was inspired by two writers of working class backgrounds, Pietro di Donato, the Italian American author of the great proletarian novel Christ in Concrete, and Hubert Selby, best known for the raw and shocking Last Exit to Brooklyn.
But no one inspired him more than Tennessee Williams, whose plays were “the first things I’d ever read that made me want to pick up a pen and try writing something myself.” At City College, he took undergraduate workshops with the then-prominent author Donald Barthelme, and advanced to the MFA program. He encountered a Chilean graduate student who introduced him to the work of Hispanic authors—Borges, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Llosa—the leading lights of what came to be called the Latin Boom. As he discovered great Latino literature, he also increasingly was drawn to writing about Cuba.
Readers of Mr. Hijuelos’ memoir who are aspiring or practicing authors can only envy the young Cuban American who was fortunate enough to go to a college whose faculty boasted some of the most prominent literary figures of the time: Barthelme, Joseph Heller, Susan Sontag, Francine du Plessix Gray, and that great outlaw of modern American fiction, William Burroughs.
Mr. Hijuelos writes that he was “surprised” to learn that the author of Naked Lunch had “built a youthful reputation as a drug-crazed sexual deviant;” even more obtusely, he reports that “I don’t even know if he was gay” (!)—because Burroughs never checked him out “the way some men downtown in the Village did.” This casual homophobia recurs like a minor leitmotif throughout the book, and this reviewer found it offputting.
Mr. Hijuelos also recounts meeting the exiled gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas, who was persecuted by the Castro government and later died of AIDS in New York. But he says nothing interesting about Arenas or expresses any sense of outrage or empathy over his suffering, even though elsewhere he criticizes the Cuban regime and its supporters among the New York literati.
In another passage, he recalls a literary event whose attendees included Allen Ginsberg. Mr. Hijuelos reduces the poet to a figure in a petty anecdote—he didn’t remember who I was, even though we’d just met, Mr. Hijuelos complains—and thinks Ginsberg was “running a racket,” never acknowledging the towering status of the author of Howl in American letters or his role as a transformative figure in American culture.
Mr. Hijuelos offers some sharp observations about the self-infatuation and bad faith of certain writers, and about the hypocrisies of the literary world. But too often the famous writers he mentions serve as walk-ons in his life—Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag, with whom he studied fiction, somewhat less so—discussed mainly in terms of what they saw in him, or did for him, or how they made him feel good about being a writer.
Mr. Hijuelos received an “A” from Sontag, “which, in retrospect, I should have taken as an enormous encouragement about my future prospects as a writer.” No kidding! But he couldn’t allow himself to enjoy her approbation and instead reverted to “feeling like my real self—not the smart guy who had impressed even such a brilliant writer as Sontag . . . but the crude and undereducated snooker artist who still felt like shoplifting every time he walked into a store.” Passages like this—and there are a few too many—give the impression that Mr. Hijuelos was entirely too wedded to this negative image of himself. The self-deprecation at times comes across as self-indulgent and unconvincing, not to mention tiresome.
After leaving City College in 1976, Mr. Hijuelos didn’t go into academia but instead took a job with a company that placed advertisements in public transportation. He spent nine years there, “doing a pretty good imitation, for all my cool-guy aspirations, of an ambition-less lower middle-management ad agency schlub.” As he approached 30, he saw himself as “a hack, a poseur, and worst of all, a classic underachiever.” But while working at the agency he began to write his first novel.
Delving into autobiographical material and striving to transform it into fiction, he was troubled by nightmares. At the urging of a girlfriend, Mr. Hijuelos went into psychotherapy with a Havana-born shrink who assured him that the year he spent away from his family between the ages of four and five ”would have produced an acute sense of anxiety and depression, insecurity, nightmares and mood swings, and melancholy in anyone.”
The illness and hospitalization were even more traumatic for Mr. Hijuelos, the therapist explained, because they severed him from his Cuban roots and language. Add to that his sense of guilt over his father’s death, and the fact that he had never accepted the reality of Pascual’s death. Mr. Hijuelos felt better after these sessions, but he “also wondered if I had turned into some kind of faggot.” There’s that gratuitous and obnoxious homophobia again. It would be understandable if Mr. Hijuelos had contextualized this fear as that of a heterosexual male raised in a macho culture in which seeking mental health treatment was considered “unmanly.” But he doesn’t, and such a stupid comment reflects poorly on him.
Mr. Hijuelos published his first novel, Our House in the Last World, in 1983; although not a bestseller, the book was well reviewed and made him a full-fledged member of the Latino literary world whose acceptance he craved. (His mother, on the other hand, was upset over the unflattering portrayals of their family, and particularly of Pascual Hijuelos’ excessive drinking.)
In 1985, Mr. Hijuelos won the American Academy’s Rome Prize, which came with a residency in the Eternal City. Four years later, he published The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The ripely sensual yet melancholic novel, replete with what Mr. Hijuelos aptly describes as “macho shenanigans,” centers on the Castillo brothers, Cesar and Nestor, musicians who, in the early 1950s, leave Havana for New York, where they try to revive their musical careers.
Thoughts Without Cigarettes ends with Mr. Hijuelos receiving the Pulitzer for the book, sparing him from having to discuss the mediocre and unsuccessful film made from it by the art dealer-turned director Arne Glimcher, with the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas and the Italian American Armand Assante miscast as the hermanos Castillo.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was the first novel by a U.S.-born Latino to cross over to a large Anglo audience, despite its liberal use of Spanish, and the first Latino novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. With Mambo Kings, however, Oscar Hijuelos achieved not only literary success and fame, but also something even more precious to him. The novel reconnected him to his father and his lost Cuban identity; he had written his way back to being Cuban.