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Adios, Happy Homeland!

by Ana Menéndez

Black Cat (Grove/Atlantic) | 268 pages | $14.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

Never have I had so many expectations—of both literature and people—overturned by a book. When I sat down with Ana Menéndez’s Adios, Happy Homeland! I was burdened with a boatload of preconceptions about Cuban literature. The list was embarrassingly long, including (but not limited to): magical realism, black beans, banyan trees, deserted streets drifting into ruin, long glances over the water toward Miami, tight-lipped reflections on Castro and the nature of repression, wild sensuality, rafts on the edge of the horizon, and the soft clapping of boats rocking together in run-down harbors…

It’s probably best to stop there. The only thing duller than a catalogue of personal prejudices is a catalogue of the many tired imitations of Garcia Marquez that have been granted ISBN numbers since One Hundred Years of Solitude was published some fifty-odd years ago. Not only does Menéndez’s book have no place in that uniform line-up, but Adios, Happy Homeland! tears apart the flat picture of Latin America and the Caribbean that has been painted over the past few decades.

In all honesty—and for all its layers of narrative and assumed names and clever wordplay, this is one of the most honest books I have ever encountered—I don’t know what Adios, Happy Homeland! is. According to conventional definitions, it isn’t a novel. Menéndez structures Adios as an anthology of short stories by fictional authors, whose identities run the gamut from a Cubophile Irishman to a senile old woman, and whose names often slyly reference figures in Cuban literature.

The web of allusions that she weaves with the authors, titles, and tone of each story is extremely dense; her first story, for example, is titled “You Are the Heirs of All My Terrors.” The author is identified as “Celestino d’Alba”—d’Alba being the main character in Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ Singing in the Well, and “you are the heirs of all my terrors” is a line from Arenas’ own suicide note, written in New York City in 1990. This is only the beginning of a cycle of cross-references, allusions, and looped stories that continue throughout this strange and wonderful book.

What emerges from the tangle of narratives that makes up Adios, Happy Homeland! is a meditation on the ways that literature and identity intersect, with Menéndez making the rare observation that literature can serve as an instrument of not only liberation, but also entrapment. Literature has offered Cubans a chance to expound upon a vision of the world as they see it, but it is sometimes misconstrued and too narrowly used to define the culture, flattening individuals into symbols and abstractions of what it means to be Cuban.

In Menéndez’s book, characters are trapped not only by Castro but by the many competing ideas of Cuban identity that others—and they themselves—possess.

Near the end of the book, Menéndez issues a warning: “All who create will find one day the need to destroy.” This book is itself a supreme act of literary destruction, holding up a mirror to the dozens of fixed ideas about Cubans and a Cuba that we have accumulated from the canon of literature and news, including several narratives that we have come to believe fully sum up the reality of the culture—and then smashing that mirror.

This may all sound very heavy, but Adios, Happy Homeland! is anything but. More than anything else, the book evades categorization, skipping from nightmare visions to schoolyard jokes in a matter of pages, or even sentences. Consistency is not a concern of this book—and indeed its absence allows such brilliant literature to flourish.

Halfway through, Menéndez gleefully demolishes even the anthology structure of her story, inserting a wonderfully anachronistic email (dated May 23, 1923) from the assorted authors that orders the anthologist to abandon his project on the grounds that “much of our lifework was and continues to be dedicated to the idea of escaping the bonds imposed by others. And now you come, an outsider, to impose on us a doomed structure. It is quite unacceptable.”

Menéndez pulls the carpet out from under us, and we must start seeing the world afresh. This book ever verges on the unexpected. It’s impossible to take in the entirety of Adios, Happy Homeland! in one reading, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since I turned over its final pages. Adios, happy homeland, indeed—and hello to new literary horizons.

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