The Halfway House
The first of Cuban author Guillermo Rosales’s novels to be translated into English, The Halfway House is not a story that we’re accustomed to. This is the anti-success story, one in which hope is choked out by failure and abandonment; this is the greater, sicker part of the immigration narrative. The Halfway House is without spiritual redemption, but somewhere in this hopeless mess lies some kind of beauty.
In his excellent introduction, José Manuel Prieto asserts that this book is Dantean. Indeed, this book is a shot of light through the darkness of human misery and William Figueras is our Virgil, our narrator. This novel tells Figueras’s story, following him from his first day in a boarding home to a day just like it three years later. Figueras comes to the halfway house as a last resort, a place to go when his relatives have disowned him and “nothing more can be done.” Though he begins his time in the halfway house as a victim—his portable television is stolen moments after he arrives—Figueras participates in the suffering of his fellow residents, beating and abusing them, stealing from them, and being complicit in their sexual abuse. The fact that they’re effectively unaware of their own misery and unused to anything else doesn’t matter; Figueras knows what he’s doing and he’s as much a devil as he is a guide, and as much a sinner as he is a lover.
His love appears in the guise of another resident, the angelic Frances. Her innocence is merely her lack of agency: she wants to die, but lacks the will to kill herself. With Figueras, she finds hope again and, in middle-age, he seems finally to find purpose, a glimmer of hope—before she is taken from him and he returns again to the undirected tableau of human suffering that makes up the majority of this work.
But what, or who, is Figueras? In a home populated by various shades, by caricatures of piss-soaked humanity, he’s the only honest-to-goodness person, but what kind of person? In one moment, late in the book, Figueras is a saint: As I pass Pepe, the older of the two retards, I take his bald head in my hands and kiss it; earlier, he’s a monster: I look at him, disgusted. His forehead is bleeding. Upon seeing this, I feel a strange pleasure. I grab the towel, twist it, and whip his frail chest; a bit later, he’s a lover: ‘Oh Frances,’ I say, kissing her sweetly on the mouth; William Figueras is all of these things because he’s a man, a twisted reflection of the shadowy characters around him with the painful gift of consciousness. This is how Rosales works.
Reading this book, such a variety of flavors wash over the tongue—a rawness, sour shocks of bile, of mold and neglect, of sweat and urine. Almost tangible, these sensations. Amid this crudity of emotion and circumstance, there’s no real limiting of language. We experience the book through a narrator who never strikes one as mad—mad only in that he stays in this place—but who instead seems too urbane for the setting, too cultured for his own reality. This, it seems to me, is a perennial problem as literary men and women attempt narratives of a cruder sort, narratives that lend themselves more to wet expression than to any belletristic goal. And many authors fail for this reason. They fail to convey this rough reality without poetry—or worse, their protagonists are written as thoughtful autodidacts simply to blur the line between the voice of the character and that of the author. With Rosales, however, there’s no artifice and no mistake; he’s imbued Figueras with an intellectual past-life that belongs to both men:
. . . by the age of fifteen I had read the great Proust, Hesse, Joyce, Miller, Mann. . . . I finished writing a novel in Cuba that told a love story. . . .The novel was never published and my love story was never known by the public at large. The government’s literary specialists said my novel was morose, pornographic, and also irreverent, because it dealt harshly with the Communist Party. After that I went crazy. . . .and I stopped writing.
This book does not pretend to be great literature—it doesn’t have the lofty goals that one imagines in Bolaño, Borges, or Zambra. Though it has high-minded, socially relevant themes, it doesn’t seem to have any purpose beyond the expoasition of pain. It’s too ugly not to be beautiful and too ugly to have been written for the sake of beauty. This novella is a painful trip into the mind of a man for whom the world is real, but somehow incoherent and unfeeling. Figueras, our educated and erudite narrator never goes crazy—the world around him does. Maybe he stopped writing—and here I cannot separate the author and his character—the storytelling went on and in the internal narrative that this book represents, Figueras expresses himself with more grace, poetry and reason than a crazy man ever could.