- The Old Man and the CityLiterary Naturalism and the Postcolonial Subject in Achy Obejas’s Ruins
The sigh of History rises over ruins. … Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. … It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture. … Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.—Derek Walcott, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” (262)
Cuban-American author Achy Obejas characterizes “the real Havana” as a place where “the urgency of need … inevitably turns the human heart feral” (“Introduction” 13). In her novel Ruins (2009), she depicts the deteriorating city of Havana in 1994 as a reflection of the degeneration of the protagonist. Ruins dramatizes the human consequences of a limboed and embargoed state of postcolonial and post-revolutionary Cuba with an emphasis on nature as it relates to both the human subject and the city: the natural environment in which torrential rains seep into the tenements and gravity pulls them down, and the human nature that is lulled by irrational belief in the stability of ideological and material structures, or driven by need or greed in a Darwinian struggle for survival.1 Havana is crumbling under an insupportable influx of migrants from rural areas in response to the economic crisis of the 1990s, which has produced overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the urban tenements. This movement from country to city recreates the mass migrations in the late nineteenth century to [End Page 150] cities like Chicago and New York, popular settings of American literary naturalist fiction, in which protagonists like Stephen Crane’s Maggie in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Theodore Dreiser’s Hurstwood in Sister Carrie (1900), and, later, Ann Petry’s Lutie Johnson in The Street (1946), spiral downward under the pressures of poverty and corruption.
The Havana of Ruins can be compared with such earlier examples of American literary naturalism, which “emerged,” according to James R. Giles, “in response to the phenomenon of the new American city” (323). Although the city of Havana is not new, the colonial buildings that were subdivided into tenements at the turn of the twentieth century are newly repurposed and overburdened in a cycle of adaptation and decay. For architectural scholars Patricio Del Real and Joseph Scarpaci, “The ruined city serves as a metaphor for the ruined political subject” (54). Given the subject’s powerlessness against environmental forces, postcolonial scholar Amrita Das writes that there is no hope in Obejas’s novel (5). In my view, one can find in the hopelessness of Ruins what Donald Pizer calls a “compensating humanistic value” (11), an affirmation of love and human dignity in the midst of the protagonist’s futile struggle against the complex economic and ideological pressures of this historical moment, suggesting a consonance between postcolonial and naturalist concerns for the real conditions of Cubans at the end of the twentieth century.
The physical setting of Havana—the colonial city with collapsing buildings—is thematically central to Obejas’s novel; also crucial is Cuba’s proximity to the U.S., its historical relationship to Africa and the legacy of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean, and its liminal position as a pseudo-invisible but present participant in a global economy. Just ninety miles away, America looms large in the identity of the protagonist Usnavy, whose mother, he believes, named him after the ships in Guantánamo Bay. He was born in Caimanera, adjacent to the U.S. base in Guantánamo on the other side of the island, in a rooming house called the Indiana, and he spent his childhood in another house called The Brooklyn (25). There is a lingering suggestion, which feeds a “kind of guilt,” that his mother may have “loved the enemy … [and] had...