THE LAZARUS RUMBA

By Ernesto Mestre

Picador USA. 486 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by Jaime Manrique

When One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1966, many readers and critics outside of Latin America were puzzled by the magical events with which its author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, spiced his narrative. A woman who flew into the heavens, swarms of yellow butterflies that shadowed characters, and lonely ghosts who came to visit simply to chat became synonymous with what came to be known as magic realism. Garcia Marquez's magic-realist style was so alluring, such a wide arch beckoning us to go through it, that he had a huge impact on Latin American and world literature. But now, 30-odd years later, magic realism has become a shtick.

Ernesto Mestre, a Cuban American making his debut as a novelist, has written a work heavily indebted to the Colombian master. The Lazarus Rumba, which spans the past 50 years of Cuban history, is a flawed novel of serious intentions, the work of a writer committed to narrative innovations, one who has a gift for similes and for composing lovely passages. The book follows dozens of characters, but the main one is the dissident widow Alicia Lucientes, who is falsely accused of murder because she has offered a mild criticism of the dictatorship. Alicia is sent to the Isle of Pines for "rehabilitation." There she discovers what happened to her cousin Hector, a trapeze artist who was sent to a labor camp for homosexuals, where he disappeared.

Book One of the novel is told mostly in the realist style of Garcia Marquez's early works, in particular that of No One Writes to the Colonel and the stories he wrote when he was himself under the influence of Hemingway and Graham Greene. But the style often mimics Garcia Marquez at his corniest: "Their redolence stirred the wild porpoises of his nostalgia." And when Alicia reads Mario Vargas Llosa's The Time of the Heroes, leafing "through the slim novel," I became alarmed. Vargas Llosa's first novel is quite a hefty tome, a long one by any definition.

In Book Two yellow butterflies show up, as well as gypsies who remind us of the troupe from One Hundred Years. The writing in this segment is saturated with the kind of mannerisms that Garcia Marquez abandoned soon after Innocent Erendira and Other Stories, when he had begun to sound like a parody of himself. (Perhaps realizing he had come to a dead end, he discarded the style that had made him the most admired living novelist -- in contrast to artists like Fellini and Dali, who just repeated themselves after their styles matured and turned into marketing trademarks.)

The Lazarus Rumba becomes less derivative in Book Three, except for lapses like "a souffle made from bitter cocoa and creole eggs from a hermaphrodite rooster" -- which is pure camp. This section offers up Mestre's criticism of the Cuban revolution as we meet Joshua, Fidel Castro's rumored illegitimate child. The tyrant himself and Che Guevara pop up on a few occasions, though Mestre has Castro singing salsa ballads during his student days, surely an anachronism because salsa as we know it did not emerge until the 1960s in the United States, and salsa ballads much later.

The most powerful passages in this section deal with the torture and murder of Hector. But because the events are not dramatized but are in rambling, stagey monologues, Hector's tragedy is muted and doesn't move us. These descriptions of the revolution's barbaric treatment of homosexuals owe much to Reinaldo Arenas's memoir Before Night Falls and to his novella The Brightest Star. The details are shocking and gruesome, but they don't ring emotionally true. Furthermore, it's hard to trust a novel in which all the Fidelistas are depicted as evil cardboard figures, as if things were fine on the island before the revolution. A touch of Dostoyevsky's dualistic vision would have helped.

The Lazarus Rumba is the work of a promising writer, but he needs to find his own voice. Mestre is trapped in a series of variations on Garcia Marquez. In his flawed debut he has a thousand moves, but we've seem them all before.

Jaime Manrique's most recent book, "Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me," has just been published.