Jose Raul Bernardo
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996
ISBN # 0-684-81817-5
299 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2006

This is a novel which both delighted and frustrated me. Jose Raul Bernardo is a wonderful story teller, and this story of a family over nearly more than 25 years in the early part of twentieth century Cuba is marvelous. Bernardo tells his tale with sensitivity, profound knowledge of working class culture, attention to detail and writes beautifully. However, the novel frustrated me since it never reached the plane of significant literature. That alone is no reason for frustration. A novel need not be high literature to be delightful. The frustration was that there are too many signs and clues that Bernardo intended it to be serious literature, and seems to believe it is. I wish he had been satisfied with producing a sensitive and beautiful story.

The signs and clues I speak of center around the images of hurricanes, the running bulls in the alley of the meat market and the behavior of royal palms in hurricanes. Bernardo wants to hang a transition to serious insights into human existence on these symbols and they just never come to fruition.

The most promising for me was what he was to make of the bulls. There is a narrow street, more like an alley, that leads from a street where there was a railroad line, to a slaughter house. When the bulls are channeled into this street, they stampeded down it to their deaths. Everyone in the neighborhood knows what to do when the bulls run – get out of the way.

Watching the bulls stampede along the Street of the Bulls is something Mani has not gotten used to yet.

It may happen at any time of the day.

Or of the night.

First he hears a rumble, a distant rumble, like the soft distant rumble of a distant storm, the disturbing soft rumble of distant drums whose sudden and persistent beating and beating instantly awakens the sleepy tropical street; a narrow little street lined with tight little buildings crammed tight against each other.

Then he sees, at the far far end of the skinny little street, up the hill, where the little church is, a tiny cloud of reddish dust. And he sees that tiny cloud get larger and larger as it moves closer and closer and as the constant beating and beating of drums becomes faster and faster and louder and louder.

Then he begins to feel it, the trembling of the earth beneath his feet; a terrifying trembling that becomes more and more terrifying as the cloud of dust gets closer and closer and as the loud beating and beating of drums becomes louder and louder and madder and madder.

It is only then that he gets to see them: A river of beasts violently rushing down the hill. A torrent of sweating, panting, bellowing bulls, enveloped in a large cloud of the thickest red dust, thrusting down the narrow unpaved street; dislodging every single stone; causing the earsplitting noise of hundreds of raging bolting angered thunder but storms; and making the entire world shake as if the Earth is about to split open and swallow him whole while the turbulent herd, in a blind brutal frenzy, eyes bursting out of their orbits, furiously charges all the way to the distant slaughterhouse at the other far end of the shaken trembling street.

The people on the Street shout and scream at the top of their lungs, “Los toros! ;Los toros! The bulls!” and men as well as women suddenly scramble around, frenetically running in all directions, elbowing and shouldering and pushing and shoving, frantically trying to get out of the way of the bulls, hiding behind posts, flattening themselves against walls, locking themselves behind closed gates and closed shutters and closed windows and closed doors.

The men on horseback, the vaqueros, yell and scream and shout and swear and curse at the battering bulls and fire and shoot their guns in the air, daringly trying to steer the wildly deranged animals and give the whole nightmarish vision the semblance of order, while the bulls— trying to prove themselves—dash and leap and lunge and jump, each of them attempting to pass each other, each of them hoping to be the first one in that race, that desperate race whose final destination is nothing but death. They do not know it yet, but soon they will. But by then there is no turning back.

They are frightening.

They are frightening because they are frightened,

And they are frightening.

......... …

And yet Mani cannot keep himself from watching the unbridled animals rush by him, silently standing as if in a trance behind the heavy metal bars that make up the heavy metal gates that separate him, inside the butcher shop, from the riotous uncontrollable bulls; metal gates and metal bars that try to prevent those monstrous beasts with the smell of fear from entering his world.

But they fail to do so. The boy Mani lives in that world.

He lives in the shadows of those bulls.

He is too young to realize that those heavy metal bars meant to keep the bulls away from him are also destined to keep him away from the life of his dreams. He is too young to realize that those heavy metal gates meant to provide him with a sanctuary are also destined to become his prison. He is too young to realize that he, like the bulls, is also racing to his death, uncontrollably, unknowingly, along that very same street, following a narrow path dictated by others.

He just lives in that world where every so often he can watch in mournful silence the noble magnificent bulls rush and push and shove and jump and leap to their deaths along the unpaved narrow little street.

And sometimes he wonders what it would be like to run free and play on that street.

I was prepared. Mani, perhaps his brother Gustavo, even his sister Merced would surely “run free and play in that street” in some significant figurative sense. But Bernardo seems not to have the imagination or courage to let his characters go, even though he seems to think that Gustavo’s small rebellion is of that nature.

Late in the novel when a crisis occurs Bernardo brings back the hurricane which had figured so heavily in the early novel, the actual hurricane of 1927. But this is a figurative hurricane, and while the reader is prepared for a hurricane of emotion, a light rain shower falls, and I as one reader was rather startled. Some might suggest that the courage it took Mani to not cause the hurricane to crush them was indeed a running free, but it just didn’t come off for me.

I’ve gone on too long in this criticism. If the novel had just told the marvelous story it did I would have be much more positive. I just came away believing that Jose Raul Bernardo himself believed he had done much more.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett