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Review: Hijuelos writes `Mambo Kings` back story

Los Angeles: Oscar Hijuelos` prequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," starts out innocently enough.

Actually, it ends innocently, too. And most of what`s in between is a meditation on innocence. The innocence of Cuba before Fidel Castro, the innocence of a melancholy musician`s soul and the innocence of a teenage girl who grew up poor and neglected and mostly alone.

But the novel is less a narrative than a lyrical incantation to sex. Intoned against the backdrop of pre-revolutionary Havana`s famous beaches and infamous nightlife, it retraces the life of the voluptuous Maria of the title. We suspect even as she leaves the rural valley where she was raised, a hollow with no schools or plumbing, that she will be a heartbreaker.

It`s inevitable because of the task Hijuelos set for himself, to tell the back story of a character whose role in the Mambo Kings is unambiguous. The memory of Maria plagues the pure Nestor Castillo, and it`s about her that he writes the song that briefly makes him and his brother famous. Melancholy Nestor and beautiful Maria had great sex and lots of it. But she led him on, rejected him and may be to blame for worse.

Even on the ride to Havana to find her future, the teenage Maria gets credit for a man`s frustration. For the driver who picks her up, a pig hauler with a big heart and a "gargoyle" face, it`s an achievement to leave her virginity intact.

But the emotions and the depth of character that might have occupied another novelist, especially a woman, weren`t on the bill Hijuelos set out to fill. Instead, Hijuelos is imagining what all Cubans must have longed for, even decades after they fled the harsh realities that befell their island when Castro took power. "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" is an evocative love note to a nation that may never have existed — as well as a woman.

Bureau Report

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