'Lazarus Rumba': awesome pageantry


"The Lazarus Rumba," by Ernesto Mestre. Picador. 486 pages. $27.50.

Ernesto Mestre's first novel, "The Lazarus Rumba," is a challenging -- no, exhausting -- book that nearly drove me mad with the demands it made, but once I understood that it wasn't a book I could read in 10- or 15-minute blocks, and once I understood that it wasn't a book to feed my bottomless appetite for bemused riffs on contemporary U.S. pop culture, and once I understood that it wasn't a book structured in generic deference to the narrative default of movies and TV shows, I found myself reading with the kind of deliberation and concentration I hadn't needed since I read Proust's "In Search of Lost Time."

Mestre's novel is a mind-bending spiral that showed me the Cuba that Castro has made better than any book, any news article, any movie. I don't have a doubt that it's a work of real genius.

The book is encyclopedic, with more than three dozen heroically drawn characters who fully engage -- though none with quite the vigor of Alicia Lucentes, who's accused of betraying Castro's revolution, and her cousin Hector Daluz, a circus acrobat who bears the wound of his murdered brother, a wound that helps to explain the novel's title. Hector's brother had a glass eye, and after his murder, Hector "cut a slit into the flesh above his left nipple and stitched the glass eye into the wound, the amethyst facing out. ... From then on they began to call his act the Lazarus Rumba, because for those few moments he was in the air he showed not just his brother -- who was inside him now, his amethyst eye peeking out of Hector's hearthole -- but all the dead how to come back. In that trembling blue halo the people in the bleachers would see the mother who died at childbirth just last month, or the husband who was trampled by one of his oxen working the fields, or the pretty brown-eyed girl who went blind and was taken by the meningitis epidemic."

The pages are dense with story and incident -- in fact, each chapter is ripe with throwaway asides that could fuel another writer for a whole novel. Sometimes you feel helpless in the face of such abundance, like a glutton at a smorgasboard. So many arresting stories! So much tragedy and abiding love! Life's rich pageant -- well, it kind of overwhelms.

I wish that I'd had a year to linger over this book -- it's that rich.

I wish that the publisher had poured a lot more money into its design, so that each chapter might have stood handsomely on its own, with a little more white space on every page. But "The Lazarus Rumba" succeeds -- in spite of its enormity, in spite of readers like me, who used to take it for granted that a difficult book paid you back, tenfold, for your hard work, but now feel obliged to warn you that the cultural event you're about to experience may be too smart for you, may be too good for you, may make you feel weak and insignificant.

Heck, don't let me scare you off this awesome achievement.

Ben Neihart's first novel was "Hey, Joe." His second, "Burning Girl," has just been published by Rob Weisbach Books under William Morrow publishers.

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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