It's hard to love the man, but easy to love his memories

April 10, 2005|By Lisa Simeone | Lisa Simeone,Special to the Sun

The Cigar Roller

By Pablo Medina. Grove Press. 352 pages. $21.

Amadeo Terra can do nothing but remember."

A truer statement was never made.

For Amadeo Terra is completely paralyzed, unable even to speak. He lies in bed in a hospital in Florida, abandoned by everything but his senses, and his memories. And those plague him.

In Pablo Medina's new novel, The Cigar Roller, Amadeo Terra is a middle-aged Cuban immigrant who, in his younger, healthier days before his stroke, worked in a cigar factory. "You cannot have a better life," he recalls. "You work to give others pleasure. Tobacco is the purest product in the world."

Such a poetic reverie --and the book is full of them -- might give the impression that Amadeo is going to achieve some kind of epiphany, a triumph over the tragedy of his body. But he isn't quite that heroic. In fact, the more religiously inclined might say his current state is a punishment for his earlier life (one character does say that): Amadeo was entirely a slave to his physical appetites.

Now he is beholden not to the temptations of food, or drink, or sex, but to the ministrations of a nurse, an orderly, and a nun. They must do everything for him, from spooning soft mush into his mouth to changing his diapers to rolling him from bed to wheelchair. And while they do, Amadeo remembers.

He remembers his wife Julia, whom he ill-treated for much of their marriage, he remembers his various mistresses (treated not a whole lot better), he remembers his children (only two of whom survive, and both ignore him), he remembers the simple joys of walking down a sunny street, of rolling a perfect cigar, of tasting mango.

It is that taste, early in the novel, "a substance like a yellow light in his brain," that sets Amadeo on the path of his ruminations. (It is impossible not to think of Proust and his madeleine.) One day, Nurse feeds him a particularly delicious mush-mango and every time she walks in after that, his whole being strains for it.

It is in the intense, lyrical passages that Medina excels, and it's hard to believe, as with Joseph Conrad, that English isn't his first language (he came to this country from Cuba at age 12). He also shares with Conrad a talent for lush, visceral images:

"Nurse is lady mango and today is her day in the sun, swimming in mango sea, dripping with mango juice, making mango jam. She and her man will catch fish tonight, drink some beer, let their dog run free. They will go home and put a record on the phonograph, do a little dancing in the living room. Nurse will be out of her uniform and maybe she will look sexy. Jackson will kiss her meaty lips, move his hand up and down her back as they dance, and big oceanic Nurse, with thighs like whales, will be slurping back and wanting more. And those two beasts will grind against each other like mountains, like fleshy glaciers, like masses of clouds that form over the ocean in late afternoon and surge upward in columns until they burst into great downpours of thunder and rain. Amadeo takes the last of the peach in his mouth, sees Nurse looming over him with a smile like a river, like a traffic light, like a big slice of mango in the white sky of her face."

The book has many such beautiful passages. But one of the disturbing qualities about The Cigar Roller is the dissonance between these poetic imaginings and Amadeo's erstwhile wretched character. Amadeo has some ugly truths to confront, and nothing to do but confront them for the rest of his days. The brutalities and indignities he imposed on others throughout his life are now being revisited on him in his hospital bed. Does this somehow redeem him? Ennoble him? We're primed by 20th-century therapy culture to believe that it must, but that's too easy. As much as Medina puts us deep inside his protagonist's head, Amadeo is still often an unsympathetic character. For all his meditation on mangoes, on music, on coconuts and card games and the tree-shaded streets of Havana, we are still faced with the awful revelations about his life.

What redeems Amadeo Terra is not the pain of his current existence or what he learns from it, but the poetry of Pablo Medina's writing.

Lisa Simeone is host of NPR World of Opera. She lives in Baltimore.

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