The reviewer, a Washington writer, is the author of "Interventions," a novel set in Chile.
The island nation of Cuba seems made to order for a historical novel using the device of a family saga. Three generations comfortably span its history -- from Spanish colony to turbulent republic under U.S. tutelage to revolutionary society under Fidel Castro. Manuel Douglas' "The Cubans" is too short by one generation and, while readable, too long by several thousand words.
Manuel Douglas is a pseudonym for two writers -- one Cuban, one North American -- who have extensively researched the period from the beginnings of the rebellion against Spain in 1895 to the fall of the Machado dictatorship in 1933. The head of their fictional family is Pedro Loyola, an impoverished Spanish peasant from bleak Asturias who goes to Cuba to make his fortune, fights briefly on the Spanish side against the rebels, marries a Cuban girl, enters the sugar business, and when last seen in 1933, is a patriarch about to become owner of the mill to which he has devoted the better part of his life.
His three children represent aspects of the confused society that emerged in Cuba during the 1920s and 1930s: Beautiful Raquel is enamored of fashion -- in art, in clothes, in behavior. Laura is a student, concerned about the future of her country. Alfredo, spoiled and lecherous, works for a U.S. bank and dabbles in Cuba's risky politics.
Pedro's story is pure Horatio Alger. Despite his ambition, he muddles along for several years in Cuba making no progress toward his dream of riches. Then, an impulsive act of bravery brings him to the attention of Don Manuel Infante, the emerging king of Cuban sugar. Hired by Infante, Pedro's sterling qualities of dignity, intelligence and initiative flower. He eventually becomes manager of the mill at Taino, the keystone of the sugar empire Don Manuel builds during World War I.
Pedro's progress provides the framework into which the authors work large chunks of information and comment on Cuban history, politics, economics and mores. What emerges is a picture of a society distorted from its beginnings as an independent nation. Despite the bloodshed and heroism of the independence struggle, the rebels were permitted, as the authors point out, neither victory nor defeat. U.S. intervention while the rebellion was still running its course broke the Spanish hold on Cuba, but prevented the rebels from winning their own independence.
In the aftermath, Cuba's economy, under the influence of U.S. capital, became almost totally oriented toward the production of sugar for export. Like other Latin American nations at various times, Cuba experienced fabulous booms. Its rich rode in Rolls Royces or private trains, threw lavish parties attended by the Roaring '20s version of the jet set, whose fashions and excesses set the style to which many Cubans aspired. Hidden by the glitter was the misery of the workers who cut the cane, and who now began to protest and organize.
Meanwhile, the new nation's possibilities for political maturity were stifled by the Platt amendment, which permitted intervention whenever the U.S. deemed it necessary. With ultimate political responsibility thus resting outside the country, political corruption inevitably flourished.
All these aspects of Cuban society are presented in abundant detail, as are the festivals, the customs, the folk beliefs, the machismo. The problem is that the authors have no sense of economy. They are as profligate with their words as were the sugar barons with their wealth. They strive for the ambience of time and place not with a sharply etched image but with gobs of information culled from newspapers, as when Raquel visits New York and we are told the names of all the stars in the plays then on Broadway.
More verbal excess comes from the misguided attempt to convey the flavor of Cuban Spanish. There are entire paragraphs of dialogue in which ornate Spanish phrases are brought bodily into English, where they are not only ludicrous, but perfectly meaningless as well:
" . . . but do you not comprehend your own symbolic value?" one character asks.
"Don't give me your overpowering luster," the other responds.
But despite its literary shortcomings, the story does move fast enough to maintain interest and to impart a good deal of information. It is thus unfortunate that it ends with the fall of Machado, an event as frustratingly inconclusive for the Cuban people as their independence struggle. For soon after Machado's departure, an army sergeant named Batista emerged as Cuba's strongman, a position he would maintain until Jan. 1, 1959, when an authentically Cuban revolution was carried out by Fidel Castro and his followers -- men and women of the generation of Pedro Loyola's grandchildren.
Had the Loyola family saga been more tightly edited and carried forward one more generation, we would have had a whole portrait, and perhaps a better sense, of the small country that has loomed so large in our politics and our fears for the past two decades.