Oscar Hijuelos: Author who won the Pulitzer Prize


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The Independent Online

Oscar Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize with his best-selling 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love about the sensuous world of Cuban musicians in 1950s New York. In 1990, the New York-born Hijuelos became the first novelist with roots in Latin America to be awarded the Pulitzer.

In his eight novels, he often explored the uprooted lives of Cuban immigrants, but he resisted being aligned with any formal artistic movement and took no overt political stance on the thorny issue of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Hijuelos chose instead to build panoramic tales around the messy lives of his characters, with vivid depictions of romance and sorrow and the mood of the times. He had published one novel before The Mambo Kings, a sprawling account of the changing fortunes of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who left Cuba to lead a high-energy band during the mambo craze of the early 1950s. "I wrote it to acquaint people with that world," he said in 1990. "I wrote it as a long poem to musicians everywhere."

A guitarist, Hijuelos said he listened to mambo, the energetic style of Cuban dance music, while writing his novel. "The music began taking over," he recalled. "I became fascinated by the lives of people who had this great talent, but then took different directions when they bumped into tougher realities here in America."

The book became a literary sensation translated into more than 30 languages, and was noteworthy for its steamy descriptions of seduction and the long, dance-filled nights when music and the possibilities of romance never seemed to end. "By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective," the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a rich and provocative book – a moving portrait of a man, his family, a community and a time."

The book blurred fiction and fact, as the brothers in Hijuelos's novel appeared alongside their hero, the Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz, on the US sitcom I Love Lucy. In real life, a female musician sued Hijuelos for defamation, claiming an unsympathetic portrait in the book was based on her life. The suit was dismissed.

The novel was made into a 1992 film, The Mambo Kings, starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, but the film could not duplicate Hijuelos's lush, musical prose style as he told a compelling story of human longing and failure. "Wives were charmed by the flirtatious splendour that was Cesar Castillo," he wrote. "He'd come down off the stage and dance with a dozen different women during a single song, his warm-blooded, thick hands taking the woman by the waist and spinning her like a falling flower .... Cesar would sing about the murmuring seas, the mournful moons, scornful, mocking, deceptive, cool, playful, entrancing love. Eyes closed, his face a mask of thoughtful passion."

Hijuelos was born in 1951 to Cuban immigrants who had gone to New York in the 1940s. His father worked in New York hotels. After a visit to Cuba when he was four, the young Hijuelos became ill with nephritis, a kidney infection, and spent a year at a Connecticut rehabilitation hospital. "I went in speaking Spanish," he often said, "and came out speaking English."

Although he spoke Spanish at home, he felt slightly removed from both cultures and withdrew into music and writing. He studied under the writers Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag at the City University of New York, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1975 and a master's degree in creative writing in 1976. From 1977 to 1984 he worked in advertising while writing fiction at night. He published an autobiographical first novel, Our House in the Last World, in 1983. He received several fellowships in the 1980s and abandoned another novel before completing The Mambo Kings in 1989.

Many of his books had lyrical titles that were almost stories in themselves, including The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993), about a family in early 20th-century Pennsylvania with an Irish father and a Cuban mother, Empress of the Splendid Season (1999), describing the experiences of a Cuban-born house cleaner, A Simple Habana Melody (2002), a portrait of a Cuban composer returning to his homeland after suffering under the Nazis during the Second World War, and Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010), which revisits the life of a female character from The Mambo Kings.

Hijuelos had lectured at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, for the past six years and was at work on two new books.

In his 2011 memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Hijuelos wrote that the original title of The Mambo Kings was The Secrets of a Poor Man's Life. A vivid image suddenly came to him, he said, as he tried to imagine the later life of Cesar Castillo, the suave lead singer of the fictional Mambo Kings.

"As I sat before my desk one day," Hijuelos wrote, "I envisioned him coming out of a basement into a courtyard, singing in a wonderful baritone, but, at the same time, carrying in his arms an old record jacket on whose cover I first 'saw' – cross my heart – the rubric 'The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love'."

Hijuelos died of a heart attack while playing tennis. Survivors include his wife of 15 years, Lori Carlson-Hijuelos, who teaches in the English department at Duke University.

Matt Schudel © The Washington Post

Oscar Jerome Hijuelos, author: born New York 24 August 1951; married firstly (marriage dissolved), secondly Lori Carlson; died 12 October 2013.