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A Place to Call Home : Cubans have been in Miami so long they have taken root. But is exile a political state or a state of mind? : THE EXILE, By David Rieff (Simon & Schuster: $21; 240 pp.)

September 19, 1993|Enrique Fernandez | Enrique Fernandez is a columnist for the New York Daily News. He writes frequently, but he hopes not compulsively, about Cuba and Cuban American culture

The dream is over. Well, maybe not quite yet, but the wake-up call is ringing. By all accounts, including the unofficial world of people still connected to the regime, the grand passionate dream that is/was the Cuban revolution is heading to a close. But on this side of the 90-mile arm of sea that separates what has been called "the two Cubas," that dream has also been, if not a nightmare, at least a troubled sleep.

Stateside, the dream is called el exilio , which David Rieff translates literally for the title of his new book, "The Exile."

Rieff is the exile's wake-up caller. His book, which is one breathless, highly-charged thesis, argues that the exile is over. The community that calls itself el exilio has become what its members feared most: merely Cuban-Americans, a hyphenation that, according to the Latino National Political Survey, was avoided by nearly all respondents of Cuban background, who preferred "Cubans."

In spite of their unprecedented success in American life--a success Cuban-Americans flaunt on every available occasion--Miami's Cubans have clung stubbornly to the pain of alienation and rootlessness, to the "specialness" of being Cuban, to the very notion of "Cubanness." As if without the pain of being Cuban they would be nothing. They have clung to that pain as the French protagonist of "Hiroshima Mon Amour" clung to her mourning for her German lover; as she said in the Renais film that serves as a counterpoint in Edmundo Desnoes's famous rumination on Cubanness and revolution, "Memories of Underdevelopment," she "wanted to have an inconsolable memory."

It was Edmundo Desnoes' point that Cubans are too fickle to nurture such an exquisitely perverse notion of the self. Though Rieff does not charge Cubans with fickleness, he does argue that, like their compatriots sticking by the end-game slogan of "Socialism or Death," Cubans simply cannot withstand the force of history. On the island, they must face the bankruptcy of Communism, and in Miami, they must face the need to become Americans after 30 some years of "the exile."

While he moves through his argument, Rieff gives us a fascinating intellectual portrait of a people misunderstood by their hosts and probably even by themselves. He unravels the causes behind the Cuban-American mistrust of the Miami Herald and the campaign mounted by right-wing exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa to discredit the newspaper. He uncovers the anti-American resentments nursed by Cuban-Americans in spite of their American flag waving. He places in perspective the panoply of political opinion among Cuban exiles, clarifying the radical differences in a community that too often appears monolithic to the outside world, and he also finds common denominators among these opposing personalities. Mostly, he follows the quest of a Cuban-American architect, Raul Rodriguez, and his wife Ninon, both of whom become frequent travelers to Castro's Cuba searching for a way to connect with their roots.

Though I'm sure there will be the usual charges of dilettantism, Rieff is on no safari here. The Cuban-American community is very much his turf, not only because of his prior research for his book, "Going to Miami," but because, quite literally, some of his best friends are Cubans, starting with the days when the likes of Nestor Almendros (to whose memory the book is dedicated) would baby-sit the young David to help out Nestor's friend and the child's mom, Susan Sontag. From his early, intimate contact with the exiled Cuban intelligentsia to his adult work as an editor of Latin American writers, Rieff learned the formidable nature of Cuban culture. His book shows he has read well and conversed even better.

It is precisely here, scaling the cliffs of high culture, that Rieff and I part company. It came early in my reading of "The Exile," when Rieff dismisses a Cuban-American's excited claim that the famous singer of Cuban popular music, the late Beny More, was the greatest Cuban who ever lived.

"Imagine if you met a Dane," argues Rieff with his friend Raul Rodriguez, who is the central character in the book, "and he said that the most important Dane who ever lived was not the philosopher Kierkegaard, or the astronomer Tycho Brahe, or even Hans Christian Anderson, but the comedian Victor Borge. Now arguably, Victor Borge is the most famous Dane in the world at the moment, but to take him as a model seems like an awfully modest ambition. Why not love Beny More's music, but aspire to something better?" A couple of paragraphs later, Rieff tells us how he felt that "there was something immensely frivolous, as well as immensely sad, about hoping that a pop singer's lyrics could effect the national reconciliation."

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