Today is Christmas Eve, while my Jewish friends are still celebrating Hanukkah, Ramadan is (or was) sometime or other, and Kwanzaa begins Friday. So I’m recommending a holiday book: A Simple Habana Melody, by Oscar Hijuelos (published in 2002, but now out in a HarperCollins paperback).
It’s a lovely book, set in a cultured pre-Castro Cuba that it lovingly evokes, although it’s not obviously Christmas-y, because there’s much darkness in it. The protagonist is Israel Levis, a genial, extraordinarily talented composer of popular songs and rumba tunes (we spell it “rhumba”) through whose lonely life music flows in a great current of melody. One of Levis’s rumbas, called “Rosas Puras” is a worldwide hit, played by orchestras and sung by singers everwhere there’s a piano or a microphone. In 1940, however, Levis is trapped in Paris when the Germans invade. Although he and his Spanish family have been Catholic since time out of mind, the Nazis assume from his name that he is Jewish. First comes the yellow star, then Buchenwald, whither he is transported in another mistake (as a famous composer, he was supposed to have been merely taken to house arrest). Levis survives, but so broken that he can no longer compose–yet he is not so broken that he and his music cannot make a lasting gift to others.
Hijuelos modeled Levis on the famous Cuban Tin Pan Alley composer Moises Simons (1890-1945), who was from a family of Basque origin and who also, because he was living in Paris and had a name that sounded Jewish, fell victim to the Holocaust.
Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the banality of evil in connection with the Holocaust. Hijuelos’s book is about the stupidity of evil–the sheer dumb animal brutishness of willfully wasting human life. Christmas–and Hanukkah, too–are feasts of light, but along with light is always what light banishes, darkness, stubborn human malevolence. We have seen much of this in recent months. It should be kept in mind during this season as we celebrate the many good things for which we are grateful.
So–a politically incorrect Merry Christmas to all until Friday, and many happy holidays of every kind!