In 'The Exile,' old Cuba is gone forever

August 17, 1993|By Peter Slevin | Peter Slevin,Knight-Ridder News Service

To live in exile is to see Cuba through a mist of time and emotion. Through the imperfections and embellishments of memory, the island becomes a chimera, and the exiles under its spell suffer what David Rieff calls "the seemingly unquenchable fantasy of return."

It is fantasy, Mr. Rieff writes in this provocative new book, because the pre-Castro Cuba that shimmers through the mist no longer exists, if it ever did, and the exiles themselves have been profoundly altered by their years away.

The distance to Cuba will grow shorter, but to visit post-Communist Cuba one day, even to live there, is not to return. As Mr. Rieff puts it, the end of socialism will not mean the end of exile.

"We Cubans have become a different people in America, and what I learned during our trips to Cuba is that they have become different down there as well," laments Ninon Rodriguez, whose family is at the center of the book.

"There's nothing there for us in Havana anymore. And that seems so awful to me, as if we had been in mourning for nothing all these years, and loving a place that no longer exists except inside us."

At its best, "The Exile" is a human tale. Mr. Rieff gets people talking about the knots in their psyches, and when they open up, they reveal their pain as much as their passion. For, perhaps inevitably, a book about exile is a book about loss.

Mr. Rieff's characters are struggling to patch holes in their lives, stretching frayed fabric that doesn't quite cover and doesn't quite match. To fill the gaps, they pull images from the past and tease them into dreams of things to come.

They conjure a once and future world where families are close, childhoods sweet, futures secure. It is a grit-free place where they feel at home and no explanations are necessary. Tuning into Spanish-radio talk shows, Mr. Rieff listens to the voices of Cuban callers more than 30 years after Fidel's triumph, "some still sturdy, others enfeebled and quavering."

"Really," he writes, "all the callers could have reduced their sentences to one word, 'Cuba,' and have repeated it over and over again. The meaning would have been clear."

Miami is a weak substitute for this Cuba, Mr. Rieff concludes. By exile comparison, the city they found was not cosmopolitan, it was not Latin, it was not a lot of things. Most of all, of course, it was not Cuba. And it still isn't.

"Cuban Miami, for all its outward prosperity and jauntiness, is a city in pain," writes Mr. Rieff, who profiled the city in his 1987 book, "Going to Miami." He looks principally at the first Cubans to leave the island and their now-middle-aged children. He sees "grief and self-absorption."

Two things happen to Mr. Rieff's characters along the way. They become less Cuban, and Cuba becomes less the way they remembered it. In a sense, the book is about fighting a losing battle to make time stand still.

The central characters are the Rodriguez family -- Ninon; her architect husband, Raul; and their 13-year-old son, Ruly. Raul and Ninon left Cuba at age 11, in 1959. They have been trying to make the pieces fit ever since.

For Cubans in the diaspora, there will come a reckoning. One day, perhaps soon, they will set foot again on the island, or choose not to do so. The Rodriguez family took the trip already, with Mr. Rieff in tow.

The scene is perfect: Raul is walking along Paseo, shooting rolls of film to preserve the old Cuba, and Ruly is walking behind him, shooting imaginary American baskets: "That's two points for Michael Jordan! Yes!"

Apart from the poignancy, the personal reckoning carries meaning for the Cuba that follows Fidel's fall. Speculation about the karma of the post-Castro world is essentially a debate about nature vs. nurture. Much of exile Miami comes down on the side of nature: Born Cuban, dreams Cuban, always Cuban. Geography, in this view, is largely irrelevant.

Mr. Rieff, however, argues for nurture: The Cuban societies that will meet one day across the Florida Straits are estranged brothers, far different from one another and far less at home with one another than some in Miami would like to believe.

"The Exile" is not a particularly ambitious book. Mr. Rieff lets his mind wander over many scattered people and topics, cobbling bits and pieces into a meandering essay. He chooses to listen and ruminate rather than pursue.

He shines when he tells of his talks with Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, Jorge Davila, Dario Moreno, Sandra Sanchez, Luis Botifoll and the others, each Cuban-born, each trying to make sense of exile and an unknowable future.

"It would be easier for me and my family," Raul Rodriguez tells Mr. Rieff, "if I could feel entirely Cuban, as people of Botifoll's age do, or entirely American, as my son Ruly does. But when the U.S. plays Cuba in some international sport, I don't know who to root for. It's like being the child of a messy divorce."


Title: "The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami"

Author: David Rieff

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 220 pages, $21

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