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May 23, 2013

Book Notes - Elizabeth Huergo "The Death of Fidel Perez"

The Death of Fidel Perez

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Elizabeth Huergo's novel The Death of Fidel Perez is a clever, lyrical debut, political satire that brings to life Cuba and its history.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Havana-born first-time novelist Huergo's clever political satire uses an intriguing premise to depict what could happen to her native country if Fidel and Raul Castro suddenly died."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In her own words, here is Elizabeth Huergo's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Death of Fidel Perez:


The Rhythms of Home and Exile


Mi Buenos Aires querido: Tangos among Friends (Barenboim, Mederos, Console)
Carlos Gardell, "El dia que me quieras" and "Mi Buenos Aires querido"
Horacio Salgán, "Don Agustín Bardi"

Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla (Yo Yo Ma)
Astor Piazzolla, "Milonga del angel," "Regreso al amor," and "Café 1930"

For a long time, the working title of my first novel was actually Song without Landscape. Nobody got it, so I went literal, The Death of Fidel Pérez, referring to the event that catalyzes the plot. For years, though, the phrase "song without landscape" haunted me. It evoked Federico García Lorca's notion of duende and came to represent a tango between the cerebral and the primal, between two Muses--one of a fire that destroys, the other of a fire that purifies. And I don't mean those silly tangos on "Dancing with the Stars" in which the dancers sport calculated grimaces as they count their steps across the floor. I mean the tango: the physical expression of that line between life and death we all tread so precariously and the emotions that enthrall the human heart—jealousy, lust, fear. So I listened to Carlos Gardell ("El dia que me quieras" and "Mi Buenos Aires querido") and Horacio Salgán ("Don Agustín Bardi"). And I listened especially to Yo Yo Ma play the music of Astor Piazzolla ("Milonga del ángel," "Regreso al amor," and "Café 1930")—all the while burning with fear and a longing to depict something I could barely see or name.

García Lorca was drawn to, obsessed by cante jondo, the "deep song" of Andalusian folk tradition, a tradition that bridged for him the looming span that arced between Romanticism and Modernity. He liked to quote an old guitar master who had told him that "‘The duende is not in the throat [of the singer]; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.'" While all art forms are capable of duende, for García Lorca its greatest expression occurred "in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present." But my throat felt closed, blocked. So I listened to Cecilia Bartoli ("Chant D'Amour") and imagined being a mezzo-soprano who channeled her exquisite voice onto the page. Time passed. I gave up and turned to Howard Alden and George Van Epps ("Thirteen Strings") and to John Williams ("The Guitarist").


Chant D'Amour, Cecilia Bartoli (Myung-Whun Chung, piano)
Bizet's "Chant d'amour," Delibes's "Les Filles de Cadix," and Viardot's "Havanaise"

Thirteen Strings, Howard Alden and George Van Epps
"I Hadn't Anyone Till You," "The Touch of Your Lips," and "Embraceable You"

The Guitarist, John Williams
Satie's "Gymnopédie no. 3" and Williams's "Aeolian Suite for Guitar and Small Orchestra"

When he arrived in the United States, García Lorca was just in time to witness the material and psychological devastation of the stock market crash. Writing home, he gave testimony to what he saw as the central contradiction of this Protestant culture which, in its worship of money, had stripped religious ritual of all its mystery, rendering Christ's transubstantiation, the holiest moment of the mass, one marked abstractly by the sound of a ringing bell, into a transaction devoid of duende. It wasn't until he got to Cuba, on the next leg of his tour through the Americas, that he felt at home. "Si me pierdo que me busquen en Cuba o en Andalucia," he wrote home. ("If I am lost, look for me in Cuba or in Andalucia.") His words darkly foreshadowed his fate at the hands of the Spanish Nationalists who, six years later, in 1936, would execute him and throw his body into an anonymous grave. He was 38. Here was duende—now in the form of a trickster, of an irony as unbearable as the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, of any war.

In silence, I began to translate García Lorca's Poeta en Nueva York, the posthumous collection of poems he had written at points along his transit from Spain to New York and Havana. He and I shared those three geographical points, my great-grandparents having emigrated from Spain to Cuba in the nineteenth-century. He and I had known New York and Havana, my parents and I having lived in both cities. Though it was not apparent then, I was trying to understand my loss of homeland in an egregiously dishonest way: through the prism of García Lorca's words, searching for the source of his courage, his ability to see and evoke the invisible, instead of trusting myself to feel the magnitude of my sorrow. Hiding behind the act of translation, willing only to engage in what amounted to an act of mimicry, I was too scared to be possessed, to let the duende climb up from the soles of my feet.


The Ultimate Collection: Lecuona by Lecuona
Ernesto Lecuona, "Siempre en mi Corazon," "La Comparsa" and "Malagueña"

It was the Cuban composer and musician, Ernesto Lecuona, who nudged me out of that fearful silence, conjuring once again that notion of a song that attached itself, belonged to the landscape of my imagination. I could agree with him that Cuba was "Siempre en mi corazon" ("always in my heart"). Lecuona's "La Comparsa" gave me a sense of Havana's rhythm, and helped me imagine the characters who would populate my novel. "La Comparsa" evoked, too, the brutality of slavery, the Congolese who were brought to the island in chains by good Christians. His "Malagueña" connected me to Cuba's colonial past and the history of Moorish Spain. And it was Lecuona's piano that let me sense the contours of the historical cusp García Lorca lived, the era the Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz explores in "Anna in the Tropics," between the Romantic and the Modern.


The Buena Vista Social Club: Ibrahim Ferrer
Ibrahim Ferrer, "Bruca Maniguá," "Marieta," "Qué Bueno Baila Usted," "Como Fue" and "Herido de Sombras"

The Buena Vista Social Club, however, catalyzed for me the emotion I had avoided for the lost landscape of my imagination, an island in my soul the size of a continent. Ibrahim Ferrer's "Bruca Maniguá" was a rhythm I had never and always heard. And "Marieta," a bawdy responsorial between male and female vocalists, elicited that sense of Cuban humor and love of puns, turning the Argentine tango's anguish of love betrayed on its head: "¡Ay, Dios! A mi me gusta que baile Marieta" (Oh, Lord! I like it when Marieta dances."). Ferrer singing Benny Moré's "Qué bueno baila usted" gave testimony to an era that had existed only in my parents' stories. Ferrer's voice prodded and goaded me to meet the duende.

I listened to Ferrer crooning "Como fue," "how it was" that he came to fall so desperately in love. He offers no explanation, only a repeated insistence that he doesn't know. I listened to "Herido de sombras," "injured by shadows," in which the singer can only invoke the penumbra of the love that once was. And I thought about García Lorca's observation that duende is best expressed through aesthetic forms that "require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present." There was nothing to understand, really, just a terrible chasm of loss and sorrow, of a longing for language and culture and place that has no resolution, only the experience of having sounded and felt its depths. Writing is a mystical embrace, the push and pull of a tango, of a finite human life against the unforgiving contours of time. I finished my novel, dear reader. I let go of that love affair--and started another.


Elizabeth Huergo and The Death of Fidel Perez links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's writing blog

Cleveland Plain Dealer review
The Hispanic Reader review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review

4 and 20 interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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