Novelist Oscar Hijuelos, best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, has died.
Since publishing his first novel, Our House in the Last World, in 1983, Oscar Hijuelos has become an increasingly popular figure in contemporary American literature. Our House tells the story of the Santinio family coming to New York City from Cuba in the 1940s. Hijuelos didn’t have to look far to find the inspiration for his tale of Cuban immigrants; his parents emigrated from Cuba and settled in New York City, where Hijuelos was born in 1951.
At the center of Our House is Hector Santinio, who must attempt to come to terms with the inability of his mother and father to adjust easily to life in America. The struggle of this family to deal with the memories of Cuba (“the last world”) is at the center of this tragic story of love and loss. Cultural identity is another theme in this novel. Santinio family members must try to maintain their Cuban heritage while assimilating into American culture. Critics have applauded Hijuelos’s rich descriptions of life in Cuba and his ability to incorporate elements of magical realism (a Latin literary tradition) into the novel. Despite the initial positive critical attention given to Hijuelos for this novel, Our House in the Last World achieved only spotty commercial success.
Published in 1989, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love provided Hijuelos with both commercial and critical success. Most notably, the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, the first time a Cuban-American was awarded the prize. The Mambo Kings continues the theme of the search for cultural identity that is present in Our House in the Last World. The reader is introduced to the Castillo brothers, Nestor and Cesar, who have emigrated to New York City. Framed by the narrative of Nestor’s son, Eugenio, we are told the story of Nestor and Cesar’s immigration from Havana and their search for the American dream in the 1950s. Driven by a desire to preserve some sense of their Cuban identity, the brothers form an orchestra known as the Mambo Kings. Through this orchestra Cesar and Nestor gain some fame, but the success isn’t enough to help them overcome their sense of longing for their native Cuba. Critics had plenty of good words for this novel; Hijuelos was praised, particularly, for his romantic descriptions of Cuban culture and for the sometimes lyrical language of the novel. The novel gained further attention when it was made into a motion picture (in both English and Spanish).