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Book Review

At the Intersection of Passion, Politics and Poetry

SILENT WING by Jose Raul Bernardo, Simon & Schuster $23, 240 pages

July 29, 1998|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Cuba edges toward the great unknown--life after Castro, that is--everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the 19th century poet and patriot Jose Marti. The pope quoted him in his January sermons to the Cuban people, and Castro puts him before Marx and Lenin in his revolutionary pantheon. Some ideologies make strange bedfellows and even stranger novels.

At first blush, "Silent Wing" is a torrid love story based on Marti's life, so filled with troubled sighs and quiet yearnings that you have to wonder what Jose Raul Bernardo is up to. His new novel comes as close to bodice-ripping as you can without popping buttons or tripping over cliches.

When we first meet Marti, here renamed Julian, the year is 1877. He is 25. The "burning passion of individual freedom" runs wildly through his veins, but it is a passion incompatible with a world shaking from a century of revolution. Already he has endured two years of hard labor in a stone quarry and six years in exile.

Engaged to a Cuban woman in Mexico City, he plans to marry once he gets settled in his new home, Guatemala, but then he meets Soledad, oldest daughter of the country's most famous general. They fall in love, and Julian is racked by duty to his fiancee, his love for Sol and his desire to free Cuba from Spanish tyranny.

By focusing on this moment in Marti's life, inspired by the autobiographical poem "La Nin~a de Guatemala," Bernardo has turned a political life into a love story, making it clear that only a thin line separates the two. One leads to misery, the other to an early grave.

Marti was 42 when he was killed in a skirmish with Spanish soldiers in Cuba in 1895, seven years before the country won its independence. He had spent the previous 15 years raising money to defeat the Spanish, working as a journalist in New York City and, most important for Bernardo, enduring a loveless marriage that lasted until his wife left him, returning to Cuba with their son, knowing he would never follow.

Tormented by a life he dreamed of but never knew, Marti neither reunited with his son nor saw his country free. He did, however, return with a band of rebels. Leading a charge atop a white horse at Dos Rios and getting fatally clipped by a bullet might have been an accident of fate, or it might have been the wish of a man unable to live with disappointment, the greatest of which, according to Bernardo, was a love he lost.

"She has the shiniest hair," thinks Julian when he first sees Sol, "golden hair that frames her head as if it were a resplendent halo that in the light of the myriads of flickering candles surrounding her, seems to glimmer. . . . On her shoulders, are those wings? White wings?"

Credit Bernardo, who was widely praised for his first novel, "The Secret of the Bulls," for keeping some distance from the lovers, even mocking Julian in his rapture. Yet the sentimentality of the novel, the poetic conceits and even the title come from Marti himself, the poet who wrote without any irony:

On the darkest nights I've seen

Rays of the purest splendor

Raining upon my head

From heavenly beauty.

I've seen wings sprout

From handsomest women's

shoulders,

Seen butterflies fly out

Of rubbish heaps.

"Silent Wing" is written--as if in tribute to the man some believe to be Latin America's greatest writer--with lush and indiscriminate colors. Guatemala City is "dotted by dozens, hundreds of bell towers, proudly standing erect, their bronze bells singing softly in the faraway distance, scintillating like sparklingly bronze stars whenever they catch and reflect the light of the setting sun," and Julian's torment is exquisitely rendered.

At the moment of truth, alone in a riverside gazebo with Sol, he must turn away. "To survive. To avoid rushing to her and grabbing her in his arms, then kissing her feet, her hands, her entire body, every single strand of her glorious hair, her eyes, her mouth."

Even though the melodrama overtakes the story and the political gets lost in a sea of sentiment, the writing is assured, and the themes are grand. The revolutionary battles the bourgeois, the radical fights the status quo, and the plight of love, caught in the middle, makes for high, if not histrionic, drama.

At second blush, "Silent Wing" is a minor but altogether likable cousin to such 19th century novels as "The Red and the Black" and "The Sentimental Education." Let Marti and Julian's tragedy be portrayed in rather potboiled terms--reckless choice and brash honor--but Bernardo still makes us care about him. "Silent Wing" is a lovely story, doing what historical fiction does best. More than the life of Jose Marti, we get a glimpse of his poetry and a touch of his anguished soul.

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