Ruins by Achy Obejas
In Ruins, Cuban writer Achy Obejas offers her readers an adroit glimpse of life in post-Revolution Cuba. We view this life by virtue of Usnavy, a Revolution diehard, once a member of the honorable majority now relegated to the near obsolete minority.
At the beginning of the novel Usnavy, ironically named after the U.S. Navy ships that haunted his hometown near Guantanamo, is painted as a man of Revolutionary principles. Living his life according to the code forged by Che Guevara, Usnavy serves at a bodega, checking off allocations of rice, baby formula and the repulsive masa carnica in his neighbors’ ration books. To the point of absurdity, Usnavy believes in his country and the hope that supposedly lives in a communist regime. Out of antiquated loyalty to the cause for which his country fought so hard during his adolescence, Usnavy and his family go without as they see friend after friend, neighbor after neighbor, leave the island for a chance at a better life in the United States. Usnavy’s sole possession of worth is a magnificent stained glass lamp situated above his bed in his broken down apartment. A relic of his pedigree, it is the only inheritance his “salao” mother was able to pass on. He cherishes the beautiful treausre for all of the promise it represents.
After one of Cuba’s many seasonal storms, Usnavy discovers a small Tiffany lamp in the ruins of an old tenement. Ridiculed as “salao” (a derogatory term for “unlucky”) by his circle of friends, Usnavy decides to reverse his misfortune by way of his discovery. Realizing that other treasures can be found in the ruins of his homeland, Usnavy ceases his work at the bodega and teams up with a lamp salesman and his repairman friend and begins earning a living that far surpasses anything he could have grossed playing by the rules.
Throughout it all Usnavy is torn. He cannot shake his loyalty to his beloved country, yet he cannot allow his family to get by barely surviving any longer. Usnavy’s connection to Cuba, however, is eventually solidified when he learns that his beloved ceiling lamp is not only a Tiffany, which is as much as he could have hoped, but a priceless ornament created for the Revolutionary Palace itself. Holding on to his lamp, Usnavy is destined to remain in Cuba. He will survive and find promise in his homeland, never fleeing for the American Dream so many had left to find 90 miles north.
In addition to a very engaging plot, Ruins is ripe with passages illustrating the nature of post-Revolution living in Havana. Hunger is rampant and no one seems to have enough. In a particularly memorable scene Usnavy’s daughter Nena is given a sandwich made with marinated strips of a blanket serving in place of meat. This illustration is par for the course in a country that has become accustomed to going without for the sake of its isolating socialist principles. The duaghters of revolutionaries parade the city’s main drag in tight clothing for the tips that will be tossed from foriegn tourists’ deep pockets.
This is a book I believe anyone will benefit from reading. A capitivating plot keeps the reader involved all the while portraying the history and way of life of a country that is often mysterious to Americans. Overall, this is an excellent and memorable book.