Upon reading Ruins, I was struck by the urgency of the content. Set in post-revolutionary Cuba the characters exist in a state of stagnant ideologies and hopes. Throughout the narrative Achy Obejas exposes a world that is startlingly familiar, one in which political values change according to the realities in which they exist. Obejas is an award-winning novelist and poet who translated Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into Spanish. A native of Havana, Obejas’ Cuba is both fantastic and forcefully real; this combination is precisely what makes her narrative so potent.
The protagonist of Ruins is a man who came of age during the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Usnavy has never let the patriotic ideals that were indoctrinated during youth escape his aging heart. Named both tragically and comically after the U.S. Navy ships moving in and out of the port of Havana, he has never been able to evade the “long shadow of the north” that haunts his life.
Usnavy lives in a dilapidated house with a wife and a daughter that have resorted to eating torn up carpet seasoned like meat in place of the real thing. Despite their real need for American currency, Usnavy refuses to participate in the growing dependence on the U.S. His dreams of Cuba’s past often conflict with his families hopes for the future. With more and more friends taking the dangerous journey to the shores of Miami, he does not merely give in. Usnavy fervently rejects the implication that America could hold anything greater than his beautiful revolutionary homeland.
Usnavy’s preoccupation with the past is manifested in his obsession with an antique lamp passed down to him from his deceased mother. The lone source of light in their otherwise dismal room, the lamp’s absurd garishness becomes a source of resentment for the two women in Usnavy’s life. Transfixed by the illuminated images of Africa created by the stained glass, he is content to live through the unpleasantries of life in post-revolution Cuba. It is not until the discovery of another lamp similar to his precious family heirloom that Usnavy begins to experience the desires that many of his fellow compañeros have expressed through their preoccupation with American wealth.
Obejas’ Ruins is full of contradictions that bring to light the complications of real life. She addresses the fluidity of values and ideologies when a young man returns from Miami as a woman, or when Usnavy’s role as caretaker is subverted when his wife’s resourcefulness saves the family. As time passes the hopes and dreams of a nation sway accordingly. Those who are lost in the past find themselves clinging to values that no longer hold the meaning they once did. Ultimately, Obejas reveals that political ideologies are as fluid as anything else, and they are not immune to the wearying effects of old age, a sentiment that resonates today.