'Loving Che' -- Examining the restless exile soul

January 11, 2004|By Mark Rozzo | Mark Rozzo,Los Angeles Times

Loving Che, by Ana Menendez. Atlantic Monthly Press. 240 pages. $22.

Ana Menendez is the author of the widely praised story collection In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd. In Loving Che, her inventive and hypnotic first novel, she returns to the entwined subjects of Cuba and exile, spinning a tart fable about history and identity that is equal parts detective story, travelogue and fever dream.

It's about a nameless young travel writer living with her Cuban grandfather in Miami, a city perpetually "living in reverse." The stores and restaurants and radio stations are all named after the ones left behind in Havana. "This endless pining for the past seemed to me a kind of madness," Menendez's anonymous narrator tells us. But it turns out that she too is living in reverse, striving to construct the personal history that has always eluded her.

She's an orphan, we learn, shipped off to Miami by her mother when she was a baby, with a few lines from Pablo Neruda pinned to her sweater. After her notoriously tight-lipped grandfather dies, she receives a mysterious package postmarked from Spain containing a sheaf of curious documents: Photographs and sheets of paper covered in a tiny, whispery scrawl intimating an unbelievable story, that her long-lost mother, a painter named Teresa de la Landre, carried on an illicit affair with no less a figure than Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Is this really her mother's bizarre attempt at memoir or merely an elaborate hoax? Could Che -- the suspicion is just outre enough to be left unspoken -- be her father?

As our heroine gamely plows through Teresa's rajas de memoria ("shards of remembrances"), Menendez takes us on an extended detour reminiscent of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Teresa is married to an upright Spanish professor named Calixto, but when Che -- Ernesto, as she calls him -- comes into their orbit, she's at once attracted and repelled by this unkempt Argentine, with his funny accent and mocking smile.

Like Cuba itself, Teresa is successfully seduced.

What ensues is a kind of high-toned, hallucinogenic bodice-ripper, as Ernesto and Teresa consummate their ill-fated love. As Teresa puts it, "Loving Che was like palest sea foam, like wind through the stars." For all the overripe passion, sweaty intimacy and willfully magical prose, this is one evanescent pas de deux. Che is no more real to us than those overly familiar, two-dimensional black-and-white photographs.

Just when Menendez's orphan sleuth is winding up her trip to Havana, she learns what may be the truth about her mother, exiled in her own imagination, in a city abandoned by friends, family and the world. But there are no hards and fasts in Loving Che, only conjectures fleshed out with poetry -- "love lives inside the leaving," "women ate their dreams and bloomed like orchids in the rain" -- and reminders that "life is not a tidy narrative."

In the end, we find our heroine unexpectedly in Paris, combing through old photographs in a musty shop somewhere. It's a habit of hers, supplementing the past with anonymous images. In Menendez's artful and restless examination of the exile soul, it's yet another means of coping with a history that's as overbearing as it is forever elusive.

Mark Rozzo writes a column focused on authors' first books for the Los Angeles Times and reviews books for The New Yorker. He has reported from Argentina -- the birthplace of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. This review, in longer form, ran in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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