I know I said we would head East…and we are, but let’s stop in Cuba for a minute.
The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales is on of those frighteningly realistic portraits of humanity that grip the reader with direct force and doesn’t let you go until you’ve understood–life is not always meant to be lived, for some it is meant to be endured. And endurance takes the kind of strength that most people don’t have. You have no hope, and despair shadows your every thought. It won’t let you die quickly, but it only encourages you to quit living. This excruciating and masterful novel puts human failure and atrocity under the microscope so you can see how they torment the lives of the unfortunate.
William Figueras is the narrator, a fictionalized version of Rosales himself who was schizophrenic and committed suicide at 47 after destroying all of his work besides this novel and another soon to be published by New Directions. William discloses that when he lived in Cuba he was happily active in the early stages of Communism, wrote a book that was well-received and that he was a good looking man. But now he is in a boarding house in Miami courtesy of his Aunt Clotilde who wants nothing more to do with him. In the beginning of the novel, Rosales delivers the horrifying scenes in a direct, disaccosiative manner. We are privy to all his senses–from the constant smell of urine and sweat to the sight of pus oozing from the one-eyed man to the taste of the undercooked lentils–to make us uncomfortable, to accompany him as a victim. The appalling circumstances of the house itself are countered by Rosales’ poetic style that uses repetition imparting almost a wistful sense of resignation. Each character is given a descriptive phrase that he uses whenever he brings them into the narrative. There’s Hilda, the decrepit old hag, Eddie the nut who is well-versed in international politics, Ida the grande dame who come to ruin, One-eyed Reyes; they are all characters he nails with a phrase and who offer nothing else but living samples of pain, fear and anger. The reader is suffocated by the smell of urine that seems to emanate from the pages and confronted with an insensitivity that makes it difficult to find redemption in anything or anyone. But that’s what this book is about–what do you do in life when life offers you no redemption?
In the beginning, William’s redemption comes from a book of English Romantic Poets that his freind, El Negro, gave him. El Negro is the only person that visits William and knows the kind of man he was in the past. Rosales allows his own influences to slip into the pages through the only people who try to help William. El Negro brings him Henry Miller and Dr. Parades, an empathic psychiatrist, talks to him through Hemingway references. And the beauty of the poets he quotes make the stark reality of Williams existence more vivid and grating. When the book seems difficult, it doesn’t refrain, instead it pushes farther. Just when you wonder how William will be able to handle his existence, just when you think that the narrator just had some turn of bad luck and he will surely change, he becomes an abuser, committing malicious acts on his house mates. His behavior is no less unforgivable than Arsenio’s, the drunk manager who lives there and abuses whomever he wants, however he wants. We see William and Arsenio bond over complicity:
I see old one-eyed Reyes, who is covertly urinating in a corner. I look around. I don’t see anyone. I go over to Reyes and grab him tightly by the neck. I give him a kick in the testicles. I bang his head against the wall.
“Sorry, sorry…,: Reyes says.
I look at him disgusted. His forehead is bleeding. Upon seeing this, I feel a strange pleasure. I grab the towel, twist it, and whip his frail chest.
“Have mercy…,” Reyes implores.
“Stop pissing everywhere!” I say furiously.
As I turn back down the hall, I see Arsenio there, leaning against the wall. He saw it all. He smiles. He leaves the can of beer in the corner and asks to borrow my towel. I give it to him. He twists it tightly. He makes a perfect whip of it and using all of his strength brings it down on Reyes’ back. One, two, three times, until the old man falls in a corner, bathed in urine, blood ad sweat. He grabs his can of beer and sits down again at his desk. Mr. Curbelo has left. Arsenio is now head of the halfway house again.
And this is how the halfyway house exists, one layer of tragedy atop another. And just as you know it will happen, hope makes a brief appearance in the form of Frances, a woman that William loves from the moment she comes to the halfway house. She lets William love her in the twisted, humiliating way that despair usually allows. He wants to have sex with and simultaneously choke her. But Rosales leaves us no room for judgment. As I am sure you have guessed, this does not come to a happy ending. He exposes life for what it can be and that is just as cruel as the acts done throughout the novel.
This novel is rich with symbolism and allegory that touches on Communism, totalitarian governments, the harshness of systems and mental facilities, oppression and sadism. The preface by Jose Manuel Prieto covers it all thoroughly so I won’t repeat it. But one thing I can say is that this a book to read, a must-read for Cuban literature, a must-read for psychological despair and mental illness, and for the those who think that life is what you make of it.
Movie Pairing: City of God. After you read this, this movie will show you that brutality doesn’t die with the victim or victimizer, it just gets inherited by the next generation.