x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

On the rocks

Books The first Guillermo Rosales novel to be translated into English tells the story of a Cuban refugee stranded in a Miami boarding house. Jascha Hoffman reads an investigation of crippling remorse.

"One day, thinking that a change of country would save me from the madness, I left Cuba and arrived in this great American country." A shrimp boat packed with Cuban refugees lands at Florida's Key West Naval Base on April 30, 1980.

The first Guillermo Rosales novel to be translated into English tells the story of a Cuban refugee stranded in a Miami boarding house. Jascha Hoffman reads an investigation of crippling remorse. The Halfway House Guillermo Rosales, translated from Spanish by Anna Kushner WW Norton & Co Dh72 The little-known Cuban writer Guillermo Rosales was born in Havana in 1946. As a boy he saw Fidel Castro's guerrilla army seize power. He fled to Miami in 1979 just as the first great exodus to the United States was beginning. Diagnosed at an early age with severe schizophrenia, he lived in a succession of hospitals and boarding houses in Cuba and the United States. In 1993, after burning most of his work, Rosales killed himself. He was 47.

One of the few manuscripts that survived was The Halfway House, a short novel that has been newly translated by Anna Kushner. Like Rosales, its narrator takes a tragic path along the margins of Cuban and American society. In the opening pages of the novel, he lays out the most detailed account of the circumstances of his alienation from the Cuban authorities that the reader will ever get: "My name is William Figueras, and by the age of 15 I had read the great Proust, Hesse, Joyce, Miller, Mann. They were for me what saints are to a devout Christian. Twenty years ago, I finished writing a novel in Cuba that told a love story. It was the story of an affair between a communist and a member of the bourgeoisie, and ended with both of them committing suicide. The novel was never published and my love story was never known by the public at large. The government's literary specialists said my novel was morose, pornographic and also irreverent, because it dealt with the Communist Party."

Figueras goes on to explain that the censorship of his novel provoked a series of mental breakdowns that eventually landed him in a halfway house in Miami: "One day, thinking that a change of country would save me from the madness, I left Cuba and arrived in this great American country. There were some relatives waiting for me here who... thought a future winner was coming, a future businessman... The person who turned up at the airport the day of my arrival was instead a crazy, nearly toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward that very day because he eyed everyone in the family with suspicion and, instead of hugging them and kissing them, insulted them."

It would be easy to mistake The Halfway House for a novel about the plight of immigrants struggling to adapt to life in America, or a novel about the inhumanity of mental institutions in the tradition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But the book does not fit easily into either category. On one level it is a story of human weakness, about the loss of dignity and willpower. Although its style is plain, its tone is remarkably fluid, shifting between raunchy and literate, clownish and bleak, despairing and naive, English and Spanish. After seeing cockroaches crawling over the peeling blue paint of his new room, there is no reason to doubt Figueras's sincerity when he says: "This is the end of me, the lowest I could go." A few pages later, he overhears the warden telling another patient, who has been shouting obscenities into the street, "Louie, you cama [bed] now. You pastilla [pill] tomorrow. You no joda más [don't mess with me anymore]," as if he were part of some Spanglish vaudeville routine. The cumulative effect of this alternation between heaviness and humour is a numbness in the reader that approaches its own kind of madness. But the book's real brilliance is not in its exploration of mental illness but in its portrait of a man who, after fleeing his own conscience, is reduced to the very kind of cruelty he had tried to avoid.

The first half of the novel charts the first weeks Figueras spends in the titular halfway house, a purgatorial place in the slums of Miami inhabited by the insane, the "desperate and hopeless", and "a smattering of old people abandoned by their families to die of loneliness so they won't screw up life for the winners". This soon begins to seem like a rosy view of the place. Although the institution belongs to an absentee owner named Mr Curbelo, who cashes the inmates' Social Security checks each month, it is managed by a low-life named Arsenio whose main form of compensation appears to be the right to terrorise its residents. His favourite target, a one-eyed, incontinent, and senile man named Reyes, almost seems to enjoy his own persecution. The other patients - Tato the homosexual, Pedro the Indian, Napoleon the midget, mentally handicapped Rene and Pepe - offer little resistance. Even the nurses beat the inmates.

Perhaps because we hope that our own habit of reading will prove spiritually nutritious, we tend to expect literature to serve as a source of strength for a character like Figueras. And he does keep a tattered anthology of English Romantic poetry in his pocket, reading occasionally from the most depressing passages of Keats ("A poor, weak, palsy-stricken churchyard thing"), Byron ("the worm, the canker, and the grief / Are mine alone!") and Coleridge ("I shot the Albatross"). But there is no redemption at hand; these fragments of verse provide little more than a vehicle for an inflated sense of self-pity. Figueras wonders how such a prodigy as himself - "I, William Figueras, who read all of Proust when I was 15 years old, Joyce, Miller, Sartre, Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Albee, Ionesco, Beckett" - could have fallen so far.

Why has the adult Figueras resigned himself to these circumstances? He seems too young, too educated and too self-aware for such a fate. It is only his unwillingness to question his placement at the halfway house, ironically, that suggests he might be sick enough to belong there. It is a relief when a visiting cousin ventures as a parting thought: "You're not crazy!" But this suggestion, with its implication of a truth he might need to escape, triggers an unexpected wave of cruelty in Figueras that threatens to drive him over the edge for good. Soon he attacks Reyes, the scapegoat, under the idle supervision of Arsenio. It is not clear at first why this hierarchy of random punishment feels so comfortable to him.

An answer begins to emerge in a series of dreams that show the debris of a traumatic life drifting through Figueras's subconscious - upwellings of grief and remorse, but also fantasies of escape and revenge. Plagued by homesickness and survivor's guilt, he dreams of wandering through the overgrown ruins of Havana. In one dream, Figueras encounters the ghost of Castro himself, stripped down to his briefs and dodging cannon fire. In another, Castro rises from his coffin to remark: "Well, we're already dead... Now you'll see that doesn't solve anything."

From these visions it is clear that a blurry past weighs heavily on Figueras, one in which he was both victim and perpetrator. But the extent of the emotional damage is not clear until Frances, a meek schizophrenic and fellow refugee from Cuba, arrives at the halfway house, letting loose a particularly disturbing mix of cruelty and tenderness in Figueras's character. On first meeting the pair enters into an unspoken sadomasochistic pact that veers swiftly from affection to asphyxiation. After a handful of encounters Frances begins to initiate sex with invitations like "Kill me."

The source of their unspoken bond remains a mystery until, on their first walk outside the halfway house, the lovers discover a shared mark of shame: "'My angel,' she says, 'Were you ever a communist?' 'Yes.' 'Me too.' We're silent. Then she says, 'At the beginning.' I lean my head back against the pillar and sing an old anthem from the early years of the Revolution in a low voice... 'I think I'm dead inside,' she says.

'Me too.'" Neither Figueras nor Frances ever reveal the details of their collaboration with Castro's regime. Instead, in the pages that follow, what emerges is a portrait of a man exiled from his own conscience, a man who would rather endure scorn and squalor than face his past. He suffers not so much from any psychiatric problem as a terminal case of remorse. And so it becomes clear that, while Figueras is more or less sane, he is envious of the authentically insane, because, unlike him, they can no longer be held responsible for their past commitments and actions. This may explain why, on seeing a Cuban singer on television, Figueras complains in a fit of jealousy: "He'll never feel his heart go 'crack' in the face of an idea in which he firmly and desperately believed... He'll never feel the joy of taking part in a revolution or the subsequent anguish of being devoured by it." A literal translation of the book's Spanish title, "House of the Shipwrecked", implies an analogy between the Miami boarding house and Castro's floating dictatorship. Figueras's tragedy is that, having escaped one, he seems to need to condemn himself to the other.

Rosales understood how sturdy self-made prisons can be: he brilliantly shows how Figueras' panicked attempts to leave the halfway house only serve to bind him more strongly to it. Throughout this tragedy, Rosales maintains an economy of detail that allows him to render situations of great horror with a measure of humour. His story manages to be both an afterimage of the legacy of totalitarianism in Cuba, and a sharp and credible depiction of everyday misery in Miami. It is tempting to read it as an extended suicide note. But it might also have been a warning, from the author to himself, that some half-lives are really not worth living.

Jascha Hoffman writes for the New York Times and Nature.