BOOK REVIEWDays of Awe - Ballantine Books

A Refugee's Emotional, Ethnic Awakening in Her Native Cuba

By Achy Obejas
Ballantine $24.95, 384 pages


Two years after the revolution, Cubans began leaving the island on anything that would float--less terrified of Castro's communism, novelist Achy Obejas intimates in "Days of Awe," than they were of the persistent rumors that an invasion and a terrible war would follow. As Obejas' narrator, Alejandra explains it, Cubans feared that their country would be besieged by "another one of those bloody skirmishes the U.S. periodically undertook in Latin America." With much sadness, but little hesitation, Alejandra's parents shipped out in April of 1961 with their 2-year-old daughter in tow, stopping first in Miami, but finally settling in Chicago, where Lake Michigan provides the family with a bit of watery solace that reminds them of their homeland. As Alejandra grows up, she begins to grasp her parents' passionate attachment to their home country, learning as well about their all-but-dormant Jewish roots. Obejas takes the novel's title from the English translation of the Hebrew "Yamim Nora'im," the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, those religious "days of awe." But Obejas wisely holds back this explanation until late in the novel after the reader has ample time to absorb the process of awakening that Alejandra undergoes about her own nationality and faith. While both her parents, Nena and Enrique, were born to Jewish families, neither was raised Jewish. Both of their families had turned from their Jewishness as anti-Semitism swept Cuba during and after World War II. Later, in Castro's Cuba, it was simply better to claim no religious faith at all.

An interpreter and oral translator, Alejandra makes her first trip back to Cuba in 1987 for professional reasons, working for a group of progressive Chicago politicians and activists. But her parents' response to her travel plans leaves her unsettled: "My parents are not fanatical refugees, they do not assume everything about the revolution is hideous. As much as they may be alienated in the U.S., they've made peace with the difficult decision to leave Cuba. Yet, when I said I was going back to the island, they paused as if they needed a moment to adjust their antennas, to rearrange their sense of disbelief into something coherent and civil. Then they kicked into exile-style paranoia.

"'Be careful--don't talk to just anyone,' my mother warned me about my upcoming visit. 'You will get them into trouble if you talk to them.' ... 'You could get yourself in trouble,' my father said. 'You could wind up in jail."'

Waiting to go through processing in the Havana airport, Alejandra realizes that she hadn't been entirely honest with herself about her reasons for visiting Cuba. The truth was that this trip marked for her a "return to the Land of Oz" she'd conjured in her dreams. With subtlety and grace, Obejas depicts Alejandra's intensifying awareness of her own identity, as a Cuban, a Jew and a woman.

Achy ObejasVisiting family and friends, Alejandra encounters a range of attitudes about Castro's revolution, with some believing the man no more than a scoundrel, and others seeing him as merely a flawed revolutionary. Given her own parents' fear of the government, Alejandra is surprised to find the various ways in which Cubans have made peace with their lives under Castro. It would be easier for her to let go of her homeland and return to America, the land where she was raised, she muses, if she could see the world in blacks and whites.

Through Moises Menach, Enrique's childhood pal, Alejandra learns about the complexities of life in modern Cuba, and she also learns about her parents' ambivalent ties to their own Jewishness. Obejas has created a true wise man in Moises, a man who possesses vision, compassion and the fortitude to carry on, despite hardship.

With Moises' son-in-law Orlando (permanently separated from his wife, Angela), Alejandra experiences a profound erotic awakening, feeling herself deeply in love for perhaps the first time in her life. Obejas masterfully links identity with place, language and the erotic life, without ever descending into sentimentality.

Her descriptions render her characters' emotional lives with a precision that precludes exotic stereotyping. But the novel yields further delights, as Obejas allows Alejandra to meditate on the cultural and philosophical differences reflected in language.

We learn, for example, that in Spanish, it is simply not possible to speak of love for an object with the same word used to speak of human love. This focus on language accounts for one of the novel's most enchanting riches, revealing a capacity to neatly articulate in Spanish the concepts that English and other languages have no words for.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times