Ruins is Achy Obejas’ first novel since the award-winning Days of Awe was published in 2001. Eight years was worth the wait. Obejas has moved from the first person female narrators used in Memory Mambo and Days of Awe to a third person narrator and male protagonist, Usnavy (named after the writing on ships his mother saw), in Ruins.
Usnavy is a fully formed, complicated character whose struggles with his beliefs, his identity, and the resistance met from friends and family propel this story.
Usnavy was an old man. Not in age so much—he had turned fifty-four that year—but he was born old, his childhood brow prematurely molded into an expression of permanent concern, his gait, even as a youngster, as labored as if he’d been instantly injured on the job, both in spirit and in fact. His pale gray eyes sat in his mushroom-brown face, common and faded, even in boyhood, as if they’d never twinkled or delighted with wonder or awe.
By opening with a description of Usnavy’s face, Obejas focuses on this man as an individual, much like Hemingway did with Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea. Like Hemingway’s character, Usnavy believes in what seems to be out of reach – the fish for Santiago and the old life after the revolution and before the collapse of the Cuban economy for Usnavy. Other characters have moved on, and both men are referred to as being salao, or unlucky, so the face, especially the eyes, set Usnavy apart from those who flee Cuba.
The year is 1994, and Cubans have a window of opportunity to build rafts and leave the country, but Usnavy refuses to leave. He still believes in the revolution, which he fully supported many years earlier, even if his family is now forced to eat soup made from blankets. Through Usnavy, his neighbors, and his family, Obejas shows the difficult choices people must make simply to survive. Usnavy is horrified and disgusted to find “a small blanket cut in pieces, marinating in a muddy sauce,” yet “it was the only thing in the entire fridge but for a domino-sized pat of margarine and two plastic bottles of soda, both filled with boiled water.” In this important scene, Usnavy is certain that his wife, trusting as she may be, must know that it is a blanket in the fridge. Usnavy pulled the pot from the fridge, “tipped the pot and sipped at its edge, drinking in the brown sauce. It had onions and tomatoes and maybe a bit of cumin. It was thick and tasty, with a hint of real beef. But then the blanket pushed up against his lips.” Through scenes like this, Obejas not only presents the daily struggle to survive that Cubans, during a time of severe gas and food shortages, faced, but also illustrates the power of the imagination to combat the poverty.
Usnavy is caught between what he believes to be right and what is expected of him. He hoards supplies at the bodega for the most needy, yet he knows that he should distribute evenly to those who came first. He ignores the fact that his wife, Lidia, fed blanket sandwiches to their daughter, Nena, content only that it was not cat meat. In fact, Usnavy was less concerned that the sandwich meat came from “pieces of a blanket normally used for mopping floors” than he was about the sauce’s ingredients having “been illicitly acquired.” While it might have been disgusting to him to know that his daughter ate blanket pieces instead of meat, that meant less to him than if the ingredients had been purchased with dollars on the black market. Obejas places Usnavy in scenes that often challenge his belief system and his loyalty to friends and family. When presented with opportunities, often going against his beliefs, to support his family during times of scarce resources, he makes difficult choices.
Usnavy’s home “was illuminated by a most extraordinary lamp. . .made of multicolored stained glass and shaped like an oversized dome, the lamp was wild.” Obejas uses this lamp to guide the readers along Usnavy’s journey throughout 1994 Cuba. The lamp may be able to provide Usnavy with American dollars to purchase items for his wife and daughter so that they might not have to eat blankets; yet, the lamp is more than simply a way to earn money. It is his dream, his past, his future, and the one item he can’t part with. It is closely tied to his identity, another theme that runs throughout this novel. That Obejas spends several pages detailing the lamp and its history speaks to its importance.
Ruins is a book to be read not once or twice, but several times, because each reading will reveal something that had been missed on an earlier read, just like Usnavy’s search through the streets for more lamps. Read it for the language, the story, and most of all for Usnavy to discover “who would admit they’d been fooled by the sheer force of their desire?” because desire propels Usnavy and the other characters, many who leave Cuba and Usnavy behind.
About the author:
Trina is currently pursuing an M.A. in English-Creative Writing at Sacramento State University, where she edits Calaveras Station Literary Journal. She is a two-time recipient of the Dominic J. Bazzanella award for her creative nonfiction. She lives in Sacramento but spends July in Fresno at CSU SummerArts, writing and collaborating with other artists.