Portrait of an era

Rosa de Miami by Eduardo Belgrano Rawson is an epic novel about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion whose many voices combine in symphonic triumph


Rosa de Miami
Eduardo Belgrano Rawson
2005, Seix Barral (Buenos Aires)
285 pages

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

EDUARDO BELGRANO RAWSON’S Rosa de Miami (Rose of Miami) is a remarkable, carnivalesque work of historical fiction described by at least one critic as the definitive novel about the 1961 anti-Castro Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

It is also an extremely humorous montage of a defining era in Latin America’s 20th-century history that paints an ironic portrait of the period by poking fun at both sides of the ideological conflict within which this military fiasco was such a landmark.

The author conducts the hundreds of voices that comprise this novel as if they were an orchestra but, despite the very real risk of dissipation, continues to keep the players in tune with great skill until the bitter end. This is largely thanks to Rosa, the Angel of Caimanera or presenter of the CIA’s clandestine station Radio Swan based on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, who reads, between the boleros, coded messages in her sultry tropical voice. Rosa is a mirror, a device, a background, against which each of these tales can be set.

Exiles and adventurers

Much of the action takes place between Miami and La Ciénaga in Cuba – where one was as much at risk from the profusion of school teachers – such as the sloganising Cleopatra, the youngest teacher there – as one is from snap-happy crocodiles inhabiting the enormous marsh that covers the southern part of Matanzas province. Belgrano Rawson tells the story, in particular, of two great friends whose original mission is to rid Cuba of prostitution but fall in love with a girl and head for Miami in a flimsy boat. Rider and Tony spend their lives variously on both sides of the conflict this dangerous stretch of water washes over. He tells us of the paratroopers who arrive from Guatemala for the invasion and end up being roundly defeated, fleeing in a makeshift boat and finding themselves shipwrecked. His characters call to mind the many exiles and adventurers from Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America’s turbulent history and the many conflicts they were drawn into.

Belgrano Rawson also explores the harrowing stories that recount the thousands of journeys across the stretch of water between Cuba and the mainland undertaken on the basis of a mistaken assumption that a favourable current exists that will take hopeful exiles swiftly and effortlessly to their land of dreams. The reality was often quite different, with the journeys ending in drowning, death from thirst – or even cannibalism. Nostalgically, the author describes the poverty, courage and resourcefulness of the Cuban people: to put a Caribbean plane in the sky, for example, demonstrated political prowess, a mixture of santería and voodoo-mechanics – and the definite masters in this aerial rite were the island’s mechanical wizards.

His fluid, gossipy style in which monologue is put to work as a potent narrative device and sarcasm is a sharp tool of observation, delivers a refreshingly neutral assessment of the revolutionary divide that does not shirk from highlighting frustration with the limited gains brought by the new khaki regime. The protagonists spend much of their time trying to leave the forsaken island – or being caught doing so and sent back. One dies trying, another eventually finds himself in Guantánamo Bay wearing the orange garb of the stranded jihadists.

As the author points out at the end of the book, most of the characters he has depicted participated in this drama and were not products of his imagination.

Like much of Belgrano Rawson’s work (Fuegia, Noticias secretas de América), the underlying argument in Rosa de Miami – chosen as one of the ten best books of the year in 2005 by La Nación in Argentina – emerges from a recognisable point of historical departure and is built upon multiple sources: his list of references at the end of this novel reads like a bibliographic textbook about this period of Cuban history.

This generous writer’s interpretation of this complex era is as colourful and intricate as the crystals of a kaleidoscope. We are in the hands of a master narrator almost, but not quite, unable to keep up with the enthusiastic pace and passion for detail that distinguish his historical vocation.

Eugene Carey is a journalist