Reviewed by Tobias Carroll
Political novels aren’t easy. More specifically: subtle political novels aren’t easy. It’s one thing to make the case for a particular viewpoint by enlisting the aid of ideologically-opposed straw men; it’s far more difficult to thoroughly cover a contentious topic without resorting to talking points or cliche. Consider two novels that use the chaos of the 2000 presidential election as their background. Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies stops dead in its tracks when its narrator launches into a monologue of political advice, turning a loose ensemble piece into a lecture on voting behavior in said election. Whether or not you agree with the politics espoused (my politics aren’t too far from Auster’s), it felt shoehorned in, a case of the narrator’s voice giving way to the author’s. (To his credit, Auster’s take on politics in Man in the Dark, Invisible, and — especially — Leviathan has been far more nuanced.) By contrast, Rick Moody’s The Diviners invokes the election periodically, but chooses to mirror it in its chaos, overlapping interests, and — more ominously — the way in which its conflicts are swept aside at novel’s end by powerful figures separated from the rest of the action..
Achy Obejas’s Ruins is set in Havana during the early 1990s. The state of Cuba’s politics under the Castro regime has a tendency to bring out the worst in certain thinkers on both the right and the left. Given that Usnavy, the novel’s protagonist, is a onetime revolutionary, it’s impossible for Ruins to avoid being at least somewhat political. Thankfully, her perspective on Cuba avoids doctrinaire takes of any variety, and the way in which she makes her case is done subtly, woven through the events of the novel.
The title of Ruins is both literal and metaphoric. The Havana through which Usnavy travels is a city full of crumbling buildings — but as significant here are the ruins of his own idealism. Obejas maintains a careful balance here — while the days of his revolutionary fervor are long gone, Usnavy never entirely repudiates his past, as some of his friends do. This isn’t to say that he lacks regrets — one particularly unsettling scene finds Usnavy recalling denunciations made at a time when he was still more dedicated to the regime’s aims.
The images of daily life decades after the revolution do not constitute a ringing endorsement of the Castro regime. Yet Ruins does not resort to a black-and-white view of Cuba’s conflicts with the United States: throughout the novel’s first half, many of Usnavy’s friends offer glowing testimonials to the superiority of life in the U.S. relative to their own. It’s done in such a way that it feels out of sorts — Obejas’s way of exploring the residents of one nation adopting the borrowed chauvinism of another. And it hardly seems coincidental that a bicycle thief who steals from Usnavy early in the novel is wearing an NBA jersey — not exactly a ringing endorsement of the benign influence of American popular culture.
This isn’t simply a novel of life in an economically devastated city or the story of one person’s political disenchantment. Obejas invokes numerous smaller details throughout. Some — such as thoughts on the history of Judaism in Cuba, and the artisanal lamps that Usnavy uncovers throughout the novel — mesh seamlessly with the novel’s plot, enriching its story and characters and expanding the novel’s canvas. Another subplot involving a strained familial relationship feels less essential — the story of a conservative father coming to terms with his son’s sexuality is compelling, but felt more like a separate story with overlapping characters than a necessary counterpoint for this particular book. In the end, Objeas’s achievement is to subtly argue against multiple prevailing notions about Cuba. With Ruins, she has managed to present a clear-eyed vision of the failures of post-revolution Cuba while still convincing the reader of why Cuba requires its own destiny. The best political novels may well be those that don’t wear politics on their sleeves, and through its evocation of daily routines and historical antecedents, Ruins avoids those pitfalls.