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From a true fan: Marti's story, and then some

The Divine Husband: A Novel, Francisco Goldman, Atlantic Monthly Press: 466 pp., $24

September 12, 2004|Tom Miller | Tom Miller is the author of several books, including "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba."

You can tell them a mile away or, more precisely, a kilometer away. They are martianos -- devotees of Jose Marti, the authentic hero of Cuban history. In Cuba, along with baseball and sex, knowledge of Marti and his heroic poetry, his lyrical politics and his romantic revolution remains among the country's top leisure preoccupations. Martianos can quote an aphorism, a proverb or a line of poetry from "the apostle," as he is known, at a moment's notice. Marti, killed in battle in 1895 during the final push for his homeland's independence from Spain, spent more than half his days exiled from his patria, a distance that allowed him to both dream and conspire. His expatriate wanderings took him to Guatemala for about 18 months, and it is this period that Francisco Goldman, un martiano de verdad -- a true martiano -- wraps "The Divine Husband" around.

Paquito (an "annoying name," the author avers), the novel's narrator, is researching the life of young, attractive Maria de las Nieves Moran, an intelligent, impressionable Guatemalan who developed a crush on Marti when he taught a night school class to muchachas in the Guatemalan capital toward the end of the 19th century. Paquito carries out his investigation in the mid-1970s, at the behest of Moran's 95-year-old daughter, Mathilde, who lives in a small New England town.

What we have here is a classic Latin American novel, written in English, mingling actual history with inventive fiction. The fictional Moran was initially schooled by very conservative nuns in a convent, where she had a tendency to sneeze, especially at inopportune moments. "Her nostrils were perpetually flared, the membranes enflamed and visibly swollen," Goldman writes, "and her lips were always slightly parted and pulled back into a frozen, cheerless near grin." Her sneezing so perturbed the nuns that they inquired of Rome what to do. The reply quoted Aristotle, saying that the pleasure of a sneeze "is felt in all parts of the body." As a result, young Moran was accused of "debauched bodily self-pleasuring" and "a ridiculing of her most solemn vow of virginal purity." She was remanded to a punishment cell.

Days later, the country's ruthless conservative dictatorship was replaced by an even more ruthless liberal dictatorship, in which most Catholic institutions, including convents, were shut down and the church was reduced to supervising baptisms and funerals. Shortly thereafter, the narrator recounts, Jose "Pepe" Marti arrived, a "slender young man with a philosopher's broad pale forehead, a poet's dramatic gaze and swept-back black mane, and the effortless good manners, dashing mustache, and electric energy of a true metropolitan." Seen walking from a distance, Pepe, who always wore a tattered black frock coat, "resembled a typographically wispy question mark in a hurry."

As she grew into her teens, Moran, whose father was a New Yorker from the Bowery and whose mother was from the Yucatan, a descendant of Mayas, fulfilled her bilingual potential by taking on translation jobs. Her admirers, invariably non-Latinos far older than she, made fools of themselves pursuing her. She spent many afternoons at the umbrella repair shop of "Polish-English-Hebrew" immigrant Jose Pryzpyz, who made condoms by night in his workshop: "They came in three sizes, were all the unappealing color of smoke-smudged fish belly, and were reusable." Moran read "Alice in Wonderland" to him. At times her life seems as if it would have fitted neatly into "Mujer, Casos de la Vida Real," the popular Univision telenovela.

Moran excelled in Marti's literary salon. "[L]ook at the way she's hanging on that showoff Cuban's every word," grumbled one suitor, whom she later married. Among Marti's other admirers was young Maria Garcia Granados, eventually immortalized in one of his best-known poems, "La Nina de Guatemala." La nina died of pneumonia shortly after Marti returned from a trip to Mexico with his new bride. In the poem, Marti proclaims that she died not of cold but of heartbreak. Over him. It is, the author writes, an "appalling poem of tortured remorse and confession and morbid longing." (Appalling, tortured and morbid it may be, but Goldman has used it before, early in his first novel, "The Long Night of White Chickens.") We are left to speculate to what extent Marti and la nina had entangled themselves.

Moran, working as a translator at the British legation, eventually fell for a teenage hunk the Brits were grooming to be king of the Mosquito Nation on Central America's Atlantic coast. "His lips had a flagrant fleshiness" and "he was as sweet as green sugarcane, full of mirth and charm." They made love on a table in the library one day, and many days thereafter. Mathilde -- remember her? -- was the result.

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