From the moment in November 1999 when "Cuban boy" Elián González was rescued from a capsized raft on his way to the United States until last June, when federal marshals snatched him from his Miami relatives after a long standoff, the Cuban exile community was in the media spotlight. Week after week shouting protesters manned the barricades demanding that Elián not be returned to his father in Cuba. The men and women who populate "In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd" may or may not have been part of those protests -- thankfully, it's hard to tell. This debut collection by Ana Menéndez goes beyond the strident stereotypes to create a clear-eyed, sorrowful portrait of the Cubans who fled the island after Fidel Castro came to power and never went back.
The stories are loosely linked, much the way people in a community are. Characters who work together at a restaurant in Miami's Little Havana in one story play dominoes together in another, and in yet another story run into each other at a party for a friend who's finally getting out of Cuba 30 years after the revolution. But what really ties these stories together is the profound sense of loss and isolation running through them. Menéndez beautifully and painfully evokes all that her characters have left behind in coming to the United States: friends, family, livelihoods; elegant homes and fine china; dreams of becoming singers and writers and baseball players.
In the title story, Maximo, who left Cuba for Miami "exactly two years after Batista had done the same," sits late into the night drinking wine with his friends and fellow exiles in his little Eighth Street restaurant. Inevitably, the stories they tell begin, "'In Cuba I remember.' They were stories of old lovers, beautiful and round-hipped. Of skies that stretched on clear and blue to the Cuban hills ... In Cuba, the stories always began, life was good and pure." Are the stories true? In "Hurricane," when a young woman's lover questions the veracity of her father's tales about "the storm of '37," she remembers something her father used to say, "It could be true and never have happened." The literal truth, Menéndez reminds us, is not always the point in storytelling.
In the final story, "Her Mother's House," Menéndez deals most powerfully with the disconnect between the exiles' dreams and the reality of the life left behind. Lisette, born in Miami two years after the revolution, who grew up thinking "Batista Castro was one man, the all-powerful tyrant of the Caribbean ... who shot poor workers in the field and stole her mother's house with all her photographs in it," travels to Havana to see the house that haunted her childhood. Could any house have lived up to the expectations built on a lifetime of longing and mythmaking? Of course, this one doesn't, and the reality of the house becomes a shared understanding between Lisette and her mother.
In story after story Menéndez mesmerizes with the richness of her description: In "Confusing the Saints," the story of a woman waiting in Miami for her husband, who has embarked by raft for the U.S.: "We walked through the narrow streets of Old Havana, all the city in the streets, old men with their skinny dogs, beautiful mulattas in tight red pants, young men in shirtsleeves, their feet bare on the cobblestones." And in "Why We Left," a lush and brokenhearted story of a grieving couple: "One December night, I come home late, my face wet with melted snow. I tell you I've found a forest where hibiscus bloom from the slender limbs of birches. I say the snow shrinks from them as if they were on fire." It's these intimate, graceful moments that add up to a portrait of a community.