Knowing who one's parents are is a fundamental aspect of one's identity. In Ana Menendez's first novel, "Loving Che," a young Cuban-American woman grapples to find that sense of self, but its absence is twofold.
While scouring Havana for clues about the mother she never knew, she's juggling with her national identity: She's American, but she's Cuban too, and the role of exile-immigrant with the "trauma of separation" is also her concern.
The unnamed protagonist was born in Havana around the time of the 1959 revolution and raised in Miami by her grandfather. She is told that her father is dead, and all that remains of her mother's is a scrap of paper with some lines of Neruda poetry.
Following the death of her grandfather, the melancholy narrator makes several fruitless trips to Havana in search of some family background. She stops going when she realizes that Havana, "so lovely at first glance, was really a city of dashed hopes, and everywhere I walked I was reminded that all in life tends to decay and destruction."
One day, she receives a mysterious package postmarked in Spain and full of letters and pictures that "smelled of dark drawers and dusty rooms."
These artifacts make up most of the book, creating the effect of a novel within a novel. The narrative switches to the fragile voice of Teresa de la Landra. Now an old woman, Teresa recounts her distant youth to her lost daughter.
She speaks with an aching voice about an adulterous affair with Che Guevara, suggesting that Castro's aide and fellow revolutionary fathered her child. Photos of Guevara, including a close-up of his executed corpse, are inserted throughout the book to startling effect,
The letters drag out, loaded with sentimentality, stilted eroticism and a pining for the past:
"Forgive me, my daughter. I have labored to construct a good history for you, to put down the details of your life smoothly; to connect events one to another. But my first efforts seemed false. And I am left with only these small shards of remembrances written on banners of wind."
As historical documents, the letters are hazy. The events leading to Castro's overthrow of Batista's government and its aftermath serve only as a backdrop to Teresa's story. For her, the sensations of love, revolution and death are rolled into one passionate ball.
Guevara as a gutsy, idealistic hero is played down, and he takes on the role of a banal lover "who is only warm, smelling of moss ground. ... freckled and soft, his skin tacky to the touch with dried sweat."
The author's fondness for the poets Lorca and Neruda is obvious since they are mentioned frequently. The sparse yet rich language of their love poetry resonates throughout the novel, but it is overused. Abstract allusions to vague sentiments are sometimes lovely, but eventually wear thin:
"Loving Che was like palest sea foam, like wind through the stars."
The book is rescued from becoming entirely a romance novel by the third and final section, which brings readers back to present-day Miami.
The letters have changed the young woman's life. With a new sense of who she is, she sets out again on the trail to find her mother.
Her quest for discovery turns into an exhilarating detective story, where most of the clues are embedded in very raw emotions. Thus begins the sifting of the evidence.
Another trip to Cuba reveals a country vastly changed from the one she remembers. She describes the paradox of a crumbling Communist country that survives on the currency of its foe, the American dollar. Along the way, we meet chatty Cubans, and their words seem genuine, intelligent and poignant.
It is a relief to shift back to a sense of reality and succinct writing, as the narrator walks around the city and knocks on doors. It's an adventure and, although she is tired, she is getting closer to solving the mystery that shrouds her birth.
Is Teresa really her mother? Are the letters true? In the end, we realize that it is our very longing for identity that defines us.