Memories of extinction

A classic tale by Cristina García of two Cuban women bound by blood and destiny has become strangely relevant today


The Agüero Sisters
Cristina García
1997, Ballantine Books
336 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

ACCLAIMED for her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban (1992), and continuing with the subject of family feuds and traits, Cristina García centred The Agüero Sisters on the dynamics of a Cuban family.

But this book – written in English and published 12 years ago – has become strangely relevant today as Cuba begins to emerge from its long isolation and as attention turns to its exile community and the nature of Cuban society itself.

The story tells of two women bound by blood and destiny. Although they have been split by the Cuban Revolution, as one gets deeper into the book, what becomes clear is that this bifurcation is not so much based on the political and national divide, but sibling rivalry.

Constancia, the oldest, lives in the US, has a nuclear family, has been married to the same man for years and is well-off, but sneers at the Cuban exiles’ obsession with the homeland of the past and the fixation of women in Key Biscayne with finding the source of eternal youth.

Back in Castro’s Cuba lives Reina, who is an expert electrician, never married but has half the island’s men quivering with a desire that has brought her clear material benefits.

The parallels and allusions are obvious: Agüero means “omen”, and most references to their paternal relatives are plagued by images of ill fate – owls appearing in the room when a baby is being born, crows perched on windowsills after a death, and weird hereditary blemishes. Constancia, as her name indicates, is constant and loyal – to her husband and more importantly, to her father, a renowned naturalist.

Reina (Queen) is the mistress of her own destiny, and exerts her power over men and women. She has no real allegiance to her father, despite living in the old family home surrounded by his taxidermic relics. Already questioning what the revolutionary heroes would think about the condition of the country now, when a freak accident almost destroys her she has no compunction about joining her sister in America.

Constancia is pale, refined and very beautiful, although glacial. Reina is tall, black, voluptuous and full of electrically charged sexuality. After their mother mysteriously dies both sisters are split, and when both reach middle age the thread that unites them turns out to be that which resolves the cause of their mother’s mysterious death, never clarified by their now extinct father.

Dichotomous daughters

Adding to the family mythology are the dichotomous daughters of the Agüero sisters. Dulce Fuerte (Strong Sweet) is Reina’s daughter, the Cuban post-revolutionary youth, sick of living on rations, prostituted and desperate to leave. She has some of her mother’s sexual attributes which she uses to get by with when she becomes stranded in Europe. Isabel Cruz, is a non-conformist sculptor, eccentric, hates frivolity and lives in an eco-hut in Hawaii until forced to bear her cross.

Curiously, the men in this novel who are most lively are the dead (Ignacio Agüero) who lives through the pages of his diary; Constancia’s father-in-law, who symbolises the Miami “plantados” and is given a full state Santero funeral; and Constancia’s deaf son. The rest simply appear to make love, money or counter-revolution through the Brigada Caimán, usually dying in the attempt. The idea here being that Cuban men simply confound patriotism with self love.

García’s hypothesis that the worlds of our ancestors die with them is intriguing for what it implies about the revolution itself.

This novel is also ambitious in the sense that the author has meticulously described Cuba’s rich fauna and flora, (nowadays disappearing, presumably because of industrialization and social changes on the island).

However, at a whopping 336 pages the reader may feel that this book was intended to be two separate novels, and it could well be. The author admitted that, after writing Dreaming in Cuban, she feared not being able to match its success, but wrote this book mainly for herself anyway after visiting Cuba (she was taken to the US aged two) and becoming interested in nature.

As for the main plot, there are flaws, like the scientist’s almost instant conversion to superstition and the cliché of a colourful, folkloric Santero, which is unfortunate given the work García put into the narrative and the effort she made to remain impartial.

Nonetheless, one can see why the author may not fit in continental Cuba, nor insular Cuba, and even in Latin American letters more broadly, as she does not write in Spanish.

Yet for all this, García deserves her praise, and it is small wonder that The Agüero Sisters was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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