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Review: An enchanting conspiracy by Daina Chaviano in 'Island of Eternal Love'

Cuba drives us crazy. That socialist island in our back yard refuses to be swallowed by the Yanqui leviathan.

Its Cohiba-chomping, semi-retired dictator continues to taunt us, repelling invasions, evading CIA assassination plots and generally outsmarting half a century's worth of U.S. politicians. By now, the exiles in Miami long for Fidel Castro's death the way foot-washing Baptists long for the Rapture.

Yet Cuba and Florida are joined at the cultural hip. For 300 years, from the early 16th century to 1821, when an exhausted Spain signed the territory over to the United States, Florida was essentially a colony of Cuba, even if we monolingual Americans take little notice of how much the two have shaped each other.

So a translation of the latest novel by the distinguished Cuban writer Daina Chaviano, born in Havana but resident in Miami since 1991, is long overdue. The narrator of The Island of Eternal Love, Cecilia, is a journalist at a newspaper that sounds a lot like El Nuevo Herald. She's glad to be out of Cuba but doesn't much like Miami: She's lonely, isolated and suffering from crippling ennui.

One night in a bar she meets Amalia, a strange old lady who begins telling a story that starts on "the other side of the world."

Cuba's Spanish and African heritage is well known, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the island also had many Chinese immigrants. They adopted Spanish names, ran businesses and melted into Cuba's rainbow society. Amalia tells of a Chinese family who flee hard times in their homeland to make a new life in a new hemisphere, bringing hidden treasures and old demons with them.

Amalia is a Latina Scheherazade, luring Cecilia back night after night to hear more about people who seem to have come from the dream vault of magic realism. There's Amalia's grandmother, Angela, plagued by a "wandering uterus" and a small but hostile spirit called Martinico whom only the women in her family can see. There's the slave Caridad, raised among the marble mansions of Cuba's plantation elite, and Pag Li, also known as Pablo, a would-be revolutionary, plus mermaids, torch singers, jack-booted thugs and orishas.

Meanwhile, back in Miami, Cecilia is being haunted by a house. It appears by night in vacant lots, huge and ancient, blazing with lights, then disappears. Other people have seen it, too. Cecilia wants to write an article, but, frustratingly, no one wants to talk on the record.

As if this wasn't enough, her love life is lousy and her aunt, her only living kin, has an obnoxious communist parrot called Fidelina who hollers, "The people united shall never be defeated!"

If all this sounds like a crazy salad of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Brothers Grimm and a telenovela, well, that's about right. The Island of Eternal Love is a fairy tale. Every element — the black stone amulet Amalia wears, the phantom mansion, the displaced Cubans Cecilia encounters in Miami (most of whom see auras and drip Tarot cards) — is part of a benign conspiracy designed to draw her ever closer to her fate.

Chaviano's prose can be a little gauche. She has a habit of telegraphing how the reader should feel rather than making dialogue and description work. But at its best, her writing is like a tropical garden after 3 inches of rain: humid, fertile, tangled, bright with flowers and singing with all kinds of fantastical fauna.

The novel's considerable pleasures lie in Amalia's narrative, the wonderful and strange interweaving of Chinese, African and Spanish family strands in a place where every inch of soil, every living creature (and many dead ones) shimmers with supernatural power: a fern leaf picked on the right saint's day, a singer's silver shawl, a lottery number.

Chaviano's tropics are as much populated by the dead as the living, and not metaphorically, either. Cecilia's aunt and Amalia's grandmother are constantly talking to people Cecilia can't see. Cuba is more enchanted than Prospero's island.

After a while, though, the hyperactive spirit world is exhausting. No one in this novel simply dies. Fidelina the parrot is one of the few characters not likely to return from the grave.

She and those dreadful bearded insurgents who banished magic from the island, of course. Chaviano's politics are heavy-handed, to put it mildly: Cuba pre-1959 was paradise, despite slavery, despite dictators like Batista, despite the United Fruit Company, the de facto colonial master. Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende write of oppression and rebellion in their fiction as well, but with a lighter, wittier touch.

The real weakness of the novel, though, is Cecilia. She is a humorless narcissist given to unenlightened introspection. No wonder she doesn't have a boyfriend. It's a miracle the sparkling Amalia puts up with her. Not that she has a choice: It's Destiny.

Cecilia must unlock the secret of the phantom house and not so much exorcize her ghosts, but show them into her living room and invite them to make themselves at home. Then, in an ending you see coming from 90 miles away, she meets a man wearing a black stone amulet. Cue spooky, but lyrical, music.

This isn't a subtle novel. Nor does it admit even a passing acquaintance with irony. But it is a satisfyingly ornate ghost story-romance, a fine, fun read, even if all the best characters are dead.

Diane Roberts is author of "Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans and Other Florida Wildlife."

The Island of Eternal Love

By Daina Chaviano, translated by Andrea G. Labinger

Riverhead Books, 315 pages, $25.95

Review: An enchanting conspiracy by Daina Chaviano in 'Island of Eternal Love' 08/16/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 16, 2008 4:32am]
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