“A Simple Habana Melody”

August 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The book is “A Simple Habana Melody: From When the World was Good.” The author is Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos. This is the story of Israel Levis, a Cuban composer whose 1928 Rumba composition, “Rosas Poros,” or “Pretty Roses,” takes Europe and America by storm. Infused with the rhythms of Cuban music, this is a love story and a search for self set against the backdrop of turn-of- the-century Havana, 1930s Paris, and the concentration camp at Buchenwald.

Oscar Hijuelos, welcome.

OSCAR HIJUELOS: Thank you. Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Israel Levis is a difficult guy, a very talented guy, but not a superstar; a guy madly in love, but unable to connect with the object of his affection; a guy who thinks he may love men as well, but unable to indulge that thought. There’s a lot of —

OSCAR HIJUELOS: It’s dedication to the art. Actually, one thing I want to start off by saying is that this novel is very loosely based on a real-life composer who lived in the 1920s-’30s, Moses Simons, who gave the world El Manisero “The Peanut Vendor,” which is one of the most famous songs. I was always intrigued by this notion — this incredibly cheerful song that every Latin band plays, every American has heard it. If you watch these old MGM/RKO movies from the ’30s and ’40s, you’ll hear “The Peanut Vendor.”

RAY SUAREZ: Jimmy Collins sang it.

OSCAR HIJUELOS: Absolutely. It introduced Latin music in effect to the world. And having written “Mambo Kings,” I wanted to do something sort of like a prequel to that whole period. And I tried to find something out about the life of Moses Simons, and one of the things that startled me was that here is a guy who was a composer in Havana in its heyday — during that period, when all this beautiful culture, not just in the music, but in the arts as well as in painting, and as in dance and so forth, was introduced to the rest of the world, here’s this man — he ended up, Moses Simons ended up in a concentration camp. That’s the only thing I could find out. He was not Jewish. He was a Spaniard with a Catalan ancestry. Running with that very bare spine, I went on to create my own composer, as it were. Essentially, I wanted to do a portraiture of a very complicated human being who is also connected to a rather vibrant moment in history. You know, the world before the Second World War was quite different than the world afterwards.

RAY SUAREZ: And Israel Levis gets caught up in the political movements of his time, but doesn’t give himself to it fully. He’s sort of a fellow traveler, but gets in a little trouble, but doesn’t become a movement guy.

OSCAR HIJUELOS: He comes up during the time of this dictator named Machado. In fact, in the portraiture of Levis, the thing I really loved about him and that I related a lot as a novelist myself is that a lot of artists have their heads in the clouds, as do… I wouldn’t say most human beings don’t look the other way when odd things or bad things are happening, but they tend to be very much involved in their own lives. And Levis is… his first love in his life is his art, his music. He’s sort of… he writes serious compositional music in Cuba. He also writes Rumbas and dance hall music, he writes jingles. I mean, he does everything. And another aspect that I wanted to explore in the book is sort of the lives of composers, of people I knew who are no longer with us who were writing, song writing, in New York until very recently. And he’s really about passion, and the book is about a love of art as well as a love of life and human beings.

RAY SUAREZ: You take a little risk in sort of taking us all the way up to the gates of Buchenwald, but not spending much time on that period of his life. It’s like a flashcard. We see it. We know it’s there, but even Levis himself won’t think very much about that time.

OSCAR HIJUELOS: Well, I think that if you’re listening to… if I can compare the book in some ways to music, I tried to give it a sort of symphonic… I don’t want to sound pretentious on this, but I wanted to give it… the book to move the reader the way that music moves a person and to create an intimate atmosphere. That was one of the things I really wanted to do. You know, getting all that history in about the time that… what was going on in Paris in the 1930s. And that generations of Cubans like Israel Levis, who went there and changed much of Europe culturally and then to go into what happened during the war. It was sort of bringing this different kind of melody into the book. There’s so much more that can be said through the imagination, just the mere utterance of the phrase. If it were a musical phrase, you would not have to hear a lot of it to know what little, for me, said for more than if I had actually drawn it out and explored it.

RAY SUAREZ: You write beautiful old people. I don’t know how else to say it. But in “Mr. Ives’ Christmas,” in “Empress of the Splendid Season,” in “Passages of the Mambo King,” you take people through normal periods of their lives and you see Israel Levis at the end of his life as well. You write about them with a great deal of sympathy, a great observant style without reducing them to something saccharine and mawkish. Why do you write such good old people?

OSCAR HIJUELOS: That’s interesting. I don’t want to say anything that will offend my mother or anything like that, but you know, I guess I’m a first- generation immigrant. I grew up in that old world realm in which you actually listened to the older folks in your life, and I was always fascinated by the wisdom and I think the inherent beauty that older people have-and also the uniqueness. I mean, I sometimes feel a little archaic in my concerns, but I am a product of a generation. My mother, I won’t say her exact birth date, but she was born before 1920. And, as such, you know, her world view is quite different than that of the more modern person. Yet that’s what I grew up around. I’ve always thought, Ray, that if I one day ever do an autobiography I would call it “Accidentally Hip” because in the… you know, everybody loved “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” and I just wrote it as sort of a serious — with a little fun involved with it, but you know, a serious sort of rekindling of this epic. And it turned out to have been picked up by a lot of people as a very hip thing.

With this new book, “A Simple Havana Melody,” I wanted to go back a little bit and go to the roots. Actually one of the first images I had for the book is of a crowded disco in South Beach, Miami, and all these sort of beautiful people dancing to a song and not having any idea of where it came from or the circumstances or the composer. And I guess that’s what I’m interested in, is going back in the time and looking at our sources and where we come from, and hopefully introducing it to a readership and maybe saying, “hey, look, there’s a lot going on even with, say, this older person” because, I mean, we’re products of the past. I think it’s a good thing to bear that in mind as we move into the future.

RAY SUAREZ: “A Simple Habana Melody.” Oscar Hijuelos, thanks a lot.

OSCAR HIJUELOS: Thank you, Ray.