Cuban-American Cristina Garcia’s first novel compresses nearly half a century of history into less than a decade of actual plot time. This blurring of the boundary between past and present mirrors the porous membrane between waking consciousness and dreaming – and between the living and the dead for the del Pino family.
The “dreaming” referred to in the title is the veiled gift of young Pilar, who dream-talks with her Cuban grandmother. To underscore the importance of this connection, Garcia presents Pilar’s point of view in the first person.
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It was 1972, and Celia del Pino sat on her porch swing, watching the sea – and dream-talking with Pilar, her granddaughter in America. As dawn spread out over the horizon, a gargantuan figure approached, “walking on water in his white summer suit and Panama hat.” It was her husband Jorge, who had left for medical treatment in the United States four years earlier. Seemingly unable to converse, the apparition faded away.
When Celia’s daughter Felicia arrived the next morning bearing news of Jorge’s death, she found her mother still seated on the porch. Celia shared with Felicia an account of Jorge’s “visit” the night before, whereupon the daughter’s grief turned to annoyance with her deceased father: “You mean he was in the neighborhood and didn’t even stop by?”
Early that morning in Brooklyn, Lourdes, another of Celia’s daughters, was preparing for the day’s business when a call from an excited nun informed her of her father’s demise – or rather his departure. The nun had entered Jorge del Pino’s hospital room to find him standing “erect and healthy, except that his head and hands glowed as if lit from within. … He put on his hat, passed through the window, and headed south, leaving a trail of phosphorous along the East River.” Lourdes immediately closed shop and walked over to the hospital morgue.
That night Lourdes’s precocious 13-year-old daughter Pilar didn’t come home. Born eleven days after the revolution, Pilar had been a difficult infant who frightened her nursemaids. “The child is bewitched,” one of them had insisted.
Indeed, the girl often spoke of conversing with her Grandmother Celia late at night. “She tells me stories about her life,” the girl would ingenuously remark. But ever since her invalid grandfather had come to stay with her family in America, Pilar’s ability to hear the voice of her grandmother had begun to fade. Now Pilar was running away, on a bus for Miami en route to Cuba – back to Celia’s home.
In 1934 Celia was working as a shop-girl in a prestigious Havana department store. It was there she met Gustavo, a “married Spanish lawyer from Grenada.” For Celia, the beginning of their passionate affair was symbolized by his gift to her: a matching pair of beautiful pearl-drop earrings. As she knew he must, Gustavo eventually returned to Spain, and Celia took to her bed: her life had lost all meaning.
At this, Celia’s lowest point, Jorge had stopped by to woo her, saying, “Write to that fool. … If he doesn’t answer, you will marry me.” And so she wrote:
Mi querido Gustavo.
A fish swims in my lung. Without you, what is there to celebrate? I am yours always, Celia
For the next 25 years, on the eleventh day of each month, Celia wrote – but never mailed – a letter to her first love, Gustavo.
Celia’s Letters: 1935-1940 (a composite)
Mi querido Gustavo,
In two weeks I will marry Jorge del Pino. He’s a good man. … He tells me to forget you …
A fat wax grows inside me. It’s looting my veins. … If it’s a boy, I’ll leave [Jorge]. I’ll sail to Spain, to Grenada, to your kiss, Gustavo …
The baby is porous. She has no shadow. … I’ve named [her] Felicia. … Lourdes is two and a half years old …
Jorge is a good man, Gustavo. … I discovered that I loved him. … Not a passion like ours, Gustavo, but love just the same …
Meanwhile, Pilar arrived in Miami and sought refuge with a cousin whom she trusted not to send her back to New York. His home, however, teemed with family. Afraid to go in until after the relatives left, Pilar finally fell asleep by the pool. Early the next morning, her aunt woke her – she had been discovered! “It’s back to Brooklyn for me. … Back to my … crazy mother.”
“Lourdes, I’m back. … Don’t be afraid,” sounded the voice of her father forty days after Lourdes had seen him buried. “Where are you, Papi?” she asked, for there wasn’t a soul to be seen on the street. “Nearby,” came the reply, followed by an expression of thanks to his daughter for burying him with his hat and cigars. “Listen for me at twilight,” he instructed her, and was gone.
A week later Jorge returned. “Have you forgotten me?” he teased. But Lourdes only wept, on account of Pilar’s running away. “Pilar doesn’t hate you,” Jorge consoled his daughter. “She just hasn’t learned to love you yet.”
Felicia, Celia’s youngest, gradually grew despondent. As her mental state worsened, she relived her relationship with her first husband – from the wild abandon of their earliest encounter to the day when she tried to kill him with a fiery, oil-soaked rag dropped blithely onto his sleeping face: “The fire ate the flesh on [his] face and hands, and the stench remained on Palmas Street for many months.” She never saw him again.
A concerned Celia removed Felicia’s young twin girls from their deteriorating mother, but the smallest child, a boy, refused to leave. Later, when Felicia attempted to kill both herself and her son with an overdose of “pink tablets,” it was Celia, warned in a dream of their peril, who had averted the disaster.
Celia’s Letters: 1942-1949 (a composite)
The Civil War came and went and now there are dictatorships in both our countries …
I still love you, Gustavo, but it’s a habitual love. … I don’t even know if you’re alive and whom you love now …
Jorge says my smile frightens him. … I’ve been … wondering what separates suffering from imagination. Do you know?
My love, Celia
A year later, in spite of immersing herself in activities such as presiding as a local civilian judge over petty squabbles, Celia was feeling lonely. Her dream- link with Pilar had died; “a cycle between them had ended, and a new one had not yet begun.”
Now a volunteer policewoman patrolling the streets of Brooklyn, Lourdes maintained regular contact with her deceased father. But he would not chat with her while she was making her rounds: he didn’t want to “interfere with her work.”
It was the year 1976, and Pilar had come to the realization, while attending a Lou Reed gig, that “the family is hostile to the individual.” Soon afterwards came an invitation from her mother to present an original piece of artwork during a Bicentennial celebration. When it was unveiled to the public, Pilar’s painting of a punk Statue of Liberty precipitated a hostile response. Unaware beforehand of her daughter’s stunt, Lourdes nevertheless defended the painting from an offended celebrant who brandished a pocketknife.
Over the next seven years, Jorge’s visits became less frequent. His time in this transition state, he said, was drawing to a close: “… We can see and understand everything just as well alive as dead, only when we’re alive we don’t have the time. … We’re too busy rushing to our graves.” And then, referring to his wife’s departed Spanish lover when he had first courted her 45 years earlier, Jorge del Pino made a startling confession: “A part of me wanted to punish her. … I wanted to kill her. … Please return and tell … her I’m sorry.”
In 1980, Felicia, still struggling to achieve stability, underwent the rites of initiation into Santeria – a witchcraft of African origin. However, her wish to be a powerful priestess went awry when she grew gradually weaker instead of stronger, and “her eyes dried out like an old woman’s and her fingers curled like claws.” The gods, when consulted, confirmed her fate – she died with her mother “rocking and rocking her in the blue gypsy dusk.”
Pilar, who had never lost the resolve to return to be with her grandmother, consulted her own specialist in Santeria. The omens were clear: she and her mother had to make the journey to Cuba.
That same year, in Celia’s rural home, Lourdes and Pilar finally completed the reunion of three generations. After putting the finishing touches to Celia’s portrait, Pilar and her grandmother sat together on the swing, talking for hours – this time face to face. At times, the old woman’s suffering overwhelmed the younger: “My thoughts feel like broken glass in my head. I can’t understand what my grandmother tells me. All I hear is her voice, thickened with pain.”
After her daughter and granddaughter’s stay had ended, Celia left her home for the last time and walked to the beach, where she marched into the surf like a “soldier on a mission,” submerging herself. Reaching up, she unfastened and released the left pearl drop earring. Closing her eyes, she repeated the action with the right, envisioning the fading light striking the metal as they sank, a “firefly through the darkened seas … its slow extinguishing.”
My dearest Gustavo,
The revolution is eleven days old. My granddaughter, Pilar Puente del Pino, was born today. It is also my birthday. I am fifty years old. I will no longer write to you, mi amor. She will remember everything.
My love always. Celia
Dreaming In Cuban Review
More than merely recording memories, Dreaming in Cuban examines gradations of pain and passion and the power wielded by past events to influence the course of a life. A disjointed narrative structure reflects the dynamic reality of human life: in day-to-day existence, people live as much in the past – as Celia’s letters to Gustavo suggest – as they do in the present.
The middle and younger generations in Dreaming in Cuban naturally point to the future. Through the pain, passion, suffering and trial of a life as long as Celia’s, successive generations are the bittersweet solace to whom the burden of love is passed along.
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