In Achy Obejas’ new novel Ruins, the year is 1994 and Usnavy Martin Leyva is a 54-year-old man who lives with his wife Lidia and their teenage daughter Nena in a one room, windowless apartment in Old Havana, Cuba. Usnavy, who was named by his mother from the letters (US Navy) she saw on the ships docked in Guantanamo, is alone in his belief in the Revolution among the long-since disillusioned people who surround him.
Even his friends mock him. Some urge Usnavy to sell his prized possession, a large, multi-colored, stained-glass lamp that hangs from the ceiling in his family’s room, so that he might be able to buy some things for his wife and daughter.
Obejas, an award-winning journalist and the author of Days of Awe was born in Cuba and now resides in Chicago. She has given us a remarkable and moving story about a man caught between his ideals and his needs.
When everyone is cheating the system, is it still cheating? From his wife, to his family to his neighbors, everyone Usnavy knows is scheming and scraping for dollars in order to afford the things that make life bearable and functional, like a new pair of shoes, a bicycle, or even real meat.
A neighbor makes phony sandwiches using pieces of wool blankets soaked in spices as “beef,” and sells them to people. It’s an act Usnavy finds despicable. But there is no meat available for anyone, unless you have dollars. It isn’t until Usnavy pays a bribe to a clerk that he’s able to obtain a new ID card for Nena to replace the one she lost.
When Usnavy’s best friend Obdulio comes to him for some rope to build a raft, Usnavy agrees to help. But he feels guilty about stealing the rope from the bodega he runs, viewing it as stealing from the people. Obdulio and his family, like thousands of others during the brief open migration policy in 1994, make the trip north to Florida.
On his way back from seeing Obdulio off, Usnavy finds a small broken lamp, that might or might not be a Tiffany, in the ruins of a building. What he decides to do with the lamp, and the ramifications of that decision, occupies the rest of the story.
When Usnavy visits a man named Virgilio to see about getting the small lamp fixed, he discovers that the lamp maker lives next to the former US Embassy (now the US Interests Section). Outside, there is a long line of visa-seekers that stretches around the building.
Usnavy remembers how they used to be viewed as traitors and how he would answer the call for volunteers to shout and throw things at those leaving the country. Obejas poignantly recounts how Usnavy’s hardened beliefs were slowly ground down.
But later his body faltered, perhaps from old age, but more likely from the pain these constant losses caused him: Each time he pitched a rotting grapefruit or other piece of garbage at someone who had once been his friend—a boy he’d seen grow up in the tenement, a good boy, one of the sapos from the domino games; or a young woman who’d extended a kindness, perhaps medicine for Nena, or a cold drink in her living room while he watched the Comandante on her TV; or someone who’d given Lidia a bit of oil or a candle—he felt weaker and weaker, until one day he went to one of those horrible encounters and could barely move.
As everyone around him yelled obscenities at the frightened elderly couple who’d scored visas to the US (and whom Usnavy knew from the CDR itself, both former officers, competent and enthusiastic), he shuffled through the throngs, embraced them both wordlessly, and went home. After that, he never again allowed himself to be volunteered for that particular kind of activity.
Usnavy remarks to Virgilio that it must be odd to be living so close to the former embassy. Virgilio says there has been a line outside that building every day since he moved there in 1951. Usnavy finds it impossible to believe that Cubans have always wanted to leave. Virgilio says that the line is sometimes longer and shorter but that there is always a line, and he adds,“The rest is lies, politics, and fable.”
There are a few loose ends left dangling at the close of the novel. There is another wrinkle to Usnavy’s name, his last name, that hints at the provenance of the large lamp hanging in his home. But this path remains largely unexplored and ends up serving more to distract than to reveal.
By so masterfully chronicling the day-to-day struggle Usnavy carries on with himself, Obejas gets beyond the militancy that often characterizes discussions about Cuba and gets to the humanity.
It seems rare these days to see William Faulkner’s definition of what is worth writing about illustrated so vividly. Seeing Usnavy’s heart in conflict with itself rendered with such compassion is what makes Ruins such an enjoyable and touching novel.