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Oscar Hijuelos' Empress Is Elegant Documentary Fiction Of A Slow-Paced Life In Spanish Harlem.

By Randall Holdridge

MARCH 15, 1999: 

Empress of the Splendid Season, by Oscar Hijuelos (Harper Flamingo). Cloth, $25.

HER NAME ITSELF is portentous: Lydia España, née Colón. It suggests the distance of her fall from pampered daughter of a small-town Cuban mayor to immigrant cleaning woman in New York City, and hints at the entire disappearance of the Creole society of her youth, which she idealizes with desperate nostalgia. As in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, in Empress of the Splendid Season Oscar Hijuelos studies the tissue of memory that provides for working-class Cuban-Americans a glamorous refuge from the sordid conditions of life in Spanish Harlem.

This world is familiar already to readers of Hijuelos. Punctuated by the rhythms of tropical dance music, it is inhabited by hardworking tradesmen and service workers who lose themselves on their nights off in smoky nightclubs or crowded apartment kitchens--in drink, in the tastes of black beans, fried plantains and strong coffee, in cheap chic and suave Latin gallantry. They laugh and they dance and they are tremendously vital, but theirs is a very sad world, suffocated by a smothering sense of loss.

The cleaning woman Lydia España embodies the courage and the self-deception which survival in this world seems to require. Lydia is a colossal character, one whom Hijuelos obviously understands very well, and her perspective so dominates this novel, just as it does her family, that she hardly leaves air for anyone else to breathe. Hijuelos tries to give life to Lydia's waiter husband Raul, to her children Alicia and Rico, and to her employers and benefactors, the wealthy WASP Osprey family; but Lydia overwhelms him--and them.

One is tempted to resent Lydia for her bullying domination, as her tenement neighbors do, and think she puts on airs. It means nothing to them that she was the mayor's daughter and had servants of her own and was the most beautiful and fashionable girl of her town. Against the background of the '60s, her relations with her children are especially fraught. Rico resents her insistence that he dress as a dandy, that his hair be perfectly oiled and slicked back, that he carry himself into the streets of the 'hood with the speech and mannerisms of a young grandee, and attend a private school his parents can't really afford. Alicia resents her mother's interference, too, and finally escapes entirely.

Lydia might see irony, even hypocrisy, in her stern hectoring. That she does not adds another possible cause of resentment. It was her father's similarly unforgiving pride and rigidity that ruined Lydia: At age 17 she gave in to the seductive wiles of a visiting trumpet player, the dignified Don Antonio Colón, and her father disowned her. Thus she came to New York; thus she married a waiter and lives in a rapidly deteriorating slum. It never occurs to Lydia that she is replicating the very parental behaviors that drove her away from her own family.

However, perhaps because we can forgive what we can understand, the reader comes to like Lydia, to sympathize with the disappointments of her life and to take pride in her achievements. Even though she wants desperately to preserve in Rico and Alicia her own nostalgic affection for the old Cuban ways, she misses no opportunity and suffers any humiliation to ensure that they climb to better lives in the American mainstream, out and away. Although Raul's ill health and increasingly eccentric personality weigh as additional burdens, Lydia carries him and the family, not without complaint, but with transcendent determination and dignity.

The great paradox of Empress of the Splendid Season is that Lydia's self-deception, her snobbery and affectations, are not only harmless, but the wellsprings of her strength. She perseveres and succeeds because of her vanity. Caught in a tawdry, lonely reality, she falls into the gap between her romanticized past and the luxurious lives of those whose toilets she scrubs; yet in her heart she remains a queen, an empress.

The novel of the immigrant experience obviously has a natural and distinguished place in the history and the present of American fiction. Hijuelos' novels of Cubans in America remind us to our advantage of a rich and unique cultural heritage. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he is an assimilationist. This point is made nicely in the fine distinction he draws between the Cuban communities in New York City and Miami, made possible by a subplot concerning Raul's estranged son from a previous marriage. Less subtly, he evaluates varieties of assimilation by tracing the dramatically different adult lives of Rico and Alicia.

Empress of the Splendid Season is written relentlessly in third person indirect narration. Where there is dialogue, it's inconsequential. Hijuelos is a determined recorder of detail, and his sentences are often elegant, even slightly old-fashioned. Very few scenes are presented dramatically, and the book is slow-paced. It is about, as Hijuelos says, "the small comforts of their decent, genteel, low-key life--the kind of life that nobody really notices...." Lydia, however, is as real a person as one encounters in fiction.

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