Sensationalism hides message in Sayles' novel on Cuban exiles @

June 23, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse

LOS GUSANOS.

John Sayles. HarperCollins.

473 pages. $22.95. The third novel by independent filmmaker and writer John Sayles is a fragmented thriller, long on incident and short on plot, about a community of Cuban exiles living in Miami and those who come into contact with them. In scattered vignettes, Mr. Sayles presents a huge cast of characters who are motivated by intrigue, nostalgia, cruelty, romanticism and revenge.

The novel revolves around an attack on Cuba being plotted by a woman named Marta de la Pena in 1981 for the 20th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, in order to avenge her brother Ambrosio's death in that failed invasion. Marta is a Joan of Arc figure, a nurse with a religious soul, nourished on her father's senile, incoherent anger and her dead brother's patriotic poetry.

When the novel opens, Marta's father, once a large landowner in Camaguey Province, is dying in the Miami nursing home where Marta works. Also working at the nursing home is another Cuban, Luz, Marta's best friend. Black, from a poor family, Luz is Marta's foil. As sexy as Marta is puritanical, Luz hates all talk of military plotting and counter-revolution. Luz's brother, Serafin, loves Marta unrequitedly. A survivor of the invasion in which Ambrosio perished, Serafin preserved the youthful poet's diary that inspires Marta.

The ailing, lonely old men in the nursing home function as a kind of chorus of Fates, whose message is the inevitability of physical decay and death. The novel's villains are Walt, a morally corrupt CIA operative, who learned his trade protecting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and perfected it working for the United Fruit Company in Central America, and El Halcon (The Falcon), a torturer under Batista, who becomes an arms dealer, pornographer and professional assassin in Miami. Other characters include family, conspirators, investigators, nursing home orderlies and many characters from their pasts.

As the novel moves back and forth from Miami in 1981 to 1950s Cuba and the 1961 invasion, it becomes apparent to the reader that Marta's plan, which consists of a single amphibious landing in her uncle's fishing boat, is a farce to commemorate a farce. Indeed, it is not always clear what fuels these characters' counter-revolutionary fervor, since most of them seem to have suffered more under Batista than under Castro. Ideology seems less a motivation than hatred of power, the desire for revenge, and romantic fantasies of liberation.

"Los gusanos" means "the worms" in Spanish, which was the derogatory term used by Castro to describe those Cubans who fled his revolution. The motif of worms, with its implications of death and decay, is repeated through the novel, from Ambrosio's idealized, pessimistic poem, to a patient's hallucination in the nursing home, and conversations of political prisoners incarcerated by Castro.

What is most inventive about the novel is its style, for it is written in English liberally interspersed with Spanish. English readers with some knowledge of Spanish will have no trouble understanding it, yet others may be annoyed or frustrated.

This is a novel about a machismo culture, in which the men seek to prove their masculinity, and the women are angels or prostitutes or both. Mr. Sayles is less interested in penetrating the complexities of machismo, as, for instance, Oscar Hijuelos did in "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," than in exploiting it for effect.

While it's easy to know whom to despise, it's hard to know whom to admire. The pure-minded Marta gets involved with some sleazy characters. She never learns what we the readers discover, which is who is responsible for her brother's death. She goes blindly off to destruction, with a priest to minister the last rites. Mr. Sayles seems to be saying something about the folly of those who lead such crusades, as well as the corruption of those who betray them, but in his penchant for sensational effects, the message gets lost.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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