Review: Midnight Rumba

Eduardo Santiago’s novel, Midnight Rumba, was runner-up in the New England Book Festival’s 2013 General Fiction category.  I decided to buy a copy and read it, because it is set in the 1950’s Cuba (Mr Santiago’s native country), and my wife and I were going to Cuba for a ten day holiday.

The principal characters are Estelita, the daughter and only child of Esteban, a charming, itinerant musician, who is part of a minor, travelling circus; Aspirrina, an inept dancer who becomes a sort of surrogate mother to Estelita; Juan Carlos, an orphan boy who makes good in the gaudy world of Havana casinos; and Lasky, the American who runs the casino where Estelita and Juan Carlos work.  There are other characters, as well: various circus performers, Delfino, a homosexual from a wealthy family. Maria, also from a rich family but now the mother superior in a convent, and Delfino’s two lovers.

The plot is that  Esteban slides into helpless, violent alcoholism.  Aspirrina and Estelita escape to Havana, where Estelita becomes lead dancer in a casino and has a part in a minor Mexican movie.  In spite of the hedonistic world around her, Estelita retains her purity until she falls in love with Juan Carlos.  From the time she leaves her father in the hospital, Estelita is determined to retrieve her father from the hospital and make a home for him.  As the novel unfolds, Fidel Castro and his rebels close in on Havana.  Some of the characters side with the rebels, others try to remain loyal to Batista, the dictator.  At the end, Estelita reconnects with her now sober father and becomes a minor, provincial dancer.

The book does an excellent job in depicting Cuba at that time: the wild indulgence, the crazy glamour, and also the desperate poverty.  The brutality of the Batista regime (and of the rebels) is also clear.

The novel started off as an 800 page manuscript; as published, it is 414 pages.  At times the story-telling gets bogged down in detail, so that it could well have benefitted from another 100 pages of editing.  Eduardo Santiago’s writing style is clear, friendly, and innovative, but occasionally, one has the feeling that he is hurrying to tell the story, and then the language becomes too ordinary.

I enjoyed reading the book, particularly as I was in Cuba at the time.  For me, it fleshed out the history of the beautiful (but now crumbling) infrastructure of Havana.  I could better understand the people, as well.  But after I finished reading Midnight Rumba, I felt the absence of a message – particularly from a native Cuban now living in the States.  Perhaps it was just intended to be – without commentary – a very good historical story.

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