Angela of the Stones Reviews

kATHERINE bEEMAN, PRISM international, February 7, 2019

In her recent column for Juventud Rebelde, renowned Cuban intellectual Graziella Pogolotti wrote that “authentic art constitutes a specific way of knowing the most profound zones of reality.” Amanda Hale’s short story collection Angela of the Stones, which contains linked short stories about the human ecosystem of Cuba, and specifically Baracoa, is this kind of art.

We step into Cuban living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, onto rooftops, walk through the park and along the Baracoa waterfront.

“It is six o’clock in the evening, the hour on the equator when the trees are alive with birds and the streets are crowded with a quick bustling of tired people unwinding after a long day, hurrying home, stopping only to buy bread or vegetables for the evening meal, crowding the doorways of stores for one last look before they close . . .”

These are short stories, but to get the full richness they should be read consecutively. After a few stories, you’re deep into the world of the characters. You care about these people, gasp oh no when you learn why Angela is of the stones, (it wouldn’t be fair to tell before you read it) and sigh with relief when it is revealed that Yanelis is not indeed pregnant by her Greek boyfriend.

Hale packs many subtle truths into her sentences, her prose exposing the flavours of Cuba’s deep reality: a place that is alive with love and magic but where life is not easy. We have the young spirit of the old, age gaps among couples, the old still dancing, the immense and wordless tenderness:

“Inside his mottled skin lives yet that young man, his hand, now twisted with arthritis, resting on his bride’s shoulder, claiming her. Erminda is more than a decade younger and can still dance circles around him, then she will stop suddenly and lay her head on his chest in a gesture beyond words.”

And we have the hard-felt problems of scarcity and regionalism: “It was a struggle with so little medicine available in Baracoa, always el ultimo . . . far from the nation’s capital, which even though it was situated at the tail of the alligator which is Cuba, managed to gobble up all of the resources.”

Not a billboard of bright colours, this is a book of tonalities of the human landscape and ways of living in it — the homeland that is humanity, to paraphrase Jose Martí, Cuba’s National Poet. This is something many visitors don’t see maybe because like long-term visitor Ronald, they never bother to learn the language, the bitter-sweetness, the fine sense of ironic humour that most Cubans live with. And how not to be bitter-sweet, living in an existing, genuinely-intended socialist state, without the means, in large part because of the U.S. blockade, to make it fully so?

After her initial introduction to Cuba as a muralist and visual artist, Hale enjoyed extended and frequent contact with Cuba throughout the past 15 years. As a result, the book feels meticulously lived and observed, full of fine-tuned detail: “The red slices glistened with oil and salt, wafer-thin slices of transparent white onion nestled on top and a bent fork balanced on the edge of the plate.”

While Hale’s dialogue captures in English how Cuban is spoken — no mean feat — she also remains in Canadian skin, seeing as Karina does in “The Unwelcome Guest” (who may or may not be Karina): “She knew that as a foreigner she didn’t count.” She also gets other Canadians dead to rights: “. . . fat, beefy looking fellows of a certain age . . .”

My favourite story, "Another World," is near the end. I want more of Sonia, who “already had years of experience coaching her own girls in Cuban history and literature, trying to instill in them the values embedded in the words of Jose Martí.” Her teenage, cellular-wise daughters are a treat, as is her daughter’s boyfriend’s grandma who “enters the house like a beauty queen, in a pair of skin-tight red pants, platform heels, and a revealing white top glistening with gold sparkles. She is proud of her body, even as her well-suckled breasts succumb to gravity and her voluptuous curves expand into the salvavidas bulging under her tight sparkly top.” This story is symbolic of Cuba’s many other worlds, different from the Canadian one, from each other, jostling, co-existing, working out that “another world” of the future.

This is a book whose power creeps up on you like el caiman, the alligator. Angela of the Stones is an essential book in that Hale portrays the essences, flavours, sabores, of Cuba’s multi-faceted, sometimes contradictory realities. Living in Cuba, I have met and heard Amanda Hale’s people. It’s a worthy and eye-opening conversation, a must-read, for both those who are new to Cuba and those already in solidarity. It defends not only what many visitors see as “paradise,” but does so while being conscious of “the complexities that sit better on a foundation of intimacy.”

— Katharine Beeman

The Ormsby Review, November 3, 2018

Amanda Hale’s stories record the morphing of Cuban idealism to resigned pragmatism, as the government attempts to heal social deficits by educating unprecedented numbers of doctors, and religion makes a comeback on the island. —Ed.

Appropriately, “La Huelga,” The Strike, the first story in the collection Angela of the Stones, begins with a raised fist, the collective slogan SEREMOS COMO EL CHE now applied to transforming Cuban religious practice, which includes the right to strike. Hale, clearly an aficionado, has enough familiarity to infuse her stories with loving clarity, the witness rebellion, starting with the ghost gestalt of “silent Fidel,” the formerly loquacious spirit.

Fidel, raised in a Jesuit school, banished clerical hierarchies from the democratic republic established by his band of social reformers. By the time Viva Cuba Libre! shouted from every public wall, churches had been closed and refugee clerics, compadres of the old order that controlled ordinary Cubans with anachronistic religious practice and political oppression, had fled to Florida. The revolution was complete. Or so it seemed.

Because religion is in the deep structure (primary pre-revolution gestalt) of the Cuban psyche, its resurgence was inevitable, but the new religion, as revealed in this story of rebellion, has new articles of faith, and for Hale stones are the metaphorical rosary.

In choosing St Angela Merici, founder of the Ursuline Order of teaching nuns, for her allusive title, Hale draws inevitable parallels to the army of young revolutionaries who shared literacy with the camposinos in the early days of the revolution. Therein lies the irony of Cuba’s relationship to the Holy Mother Church, whose foot soldiers formed the infrastructure of evil in previous regimes, and in their current incarnation conformed to the Marxist doctrine of liberation theology.

In this story, the restored church endures a mini-revolution that parallels the political earthquake that changed Cuba forever. A good priest has been sent home for questioning the orthodoxies of church and state. This time the faithful, having transferred their devotion to the saints for adoration of the heroes of the revolution, are wearing T-shirts that say SEREMOS COMO EL CHE, we will be like Che, the new Jesus, and readers of these stories will suspend disbelief or not depending on their reaction to that prescription, a new hierarchy of angels and saints, some heroes of the revolution, some Orishas and some television evangelists broadcasting from America.

Hale’s Angela is a street person, mad some would argue because the sane all have a place to sleep, but the sharp stones she picks up to defend herself carry the wisdom of the poet soldier Jose Marti, Patria es humanidad. As the least among the least, Angela of the Stones throws their own hypocrisy in the faces of those who, in their own agony of deprivation, have forgotten the gospel of kindness preached and practised by the deposed priest, as reported by the nurse Gertrudis fifty years after her soul was rocked by the first tremors.

There are no magic words to annihilate the pain of starvation during the Special Period when Russia abandoned its patriarchal transformation of Cuba into the land of cardboard bread, rubber cheese, and untunable pianos. Religion, the old antidote, and Patriotism, the new anodyne, are the volatile mortar connecting stone to stone.

“I remember,” they say, the ones who were there when their world transformed. Hale is faithful to their stories as they talk their way into the silence where all social dialectics expend their energy. This is the story of translated articles of faith, Jesus and Che enduring because martyrs have tickets to the Kingdom of Heaven as sainted ladies like Angela, God’s real gardeners, fade into the future unknown. Hale makes their case in stories that engage the head and the heart.

She finds her heroes in the rubble of organically constructed buildings that implode from the negative attention of bureaucrats swamped in pedantry. “A Limited Engagement,” reprises the hilarious 1966 comedy Death of a Bureaucrat, which follows the Byzantine path of a widow seeking her husband’s pension. In Hale’s story, a tourist dies and disappears in the usual tangle of red tape, as the writer takes the opportunity to manifest the leavening power of humour in a culture flattened by adversity, where Russian bidets were called “bidels” and a pantomimed beard substituted for the name of its leader.

Tourism was the solution to the Special Period, when malnourished millions were forced to compromise, but it brought another version of explorers with smallpox, gold-chained, suntanned Canadian roosters with pockets filled with Viagra, STDs and much needed pension cheques.

Angela of the Stones is a transformative metaphor. Stones, sometimes a rosary, sometimes a broken road and sometimes a cairn built, rock on rock, are tokens of the idealism that not only sparked a revolution but has also kept the spirit of the people alive for longer than might reasonably have been expected, given the demise of the heretofore reliable Soviet Socialist Republic and the strangulating American blockade of Cuba.

These stories record the morphing of Cuban idealism to resigned pragmatism, as the government attempts to heal social deficits by educating unprecedented numbers of doctors and presenting the model of social and medical triage to the world. In her most overtly didactic story, “The Homecoming,” she deplores the public relations gesture of exporting the best doctors in international medical swat teams that gives the middle finger to America, but does not solve problems at home.

The stories “Daniela’s Condition” and “Berta’s Kidney” are metaphors for social malaise and the trembling infrastructure of church and family, as Cuban men struggle to find their dignity and Cuban women, burdened by millstones, are left to raise the children of infidelity. Hale, manifesting love and admiration especially for resilient Cuban women, doesn’t hesitate to reveal the cracks in the infamous sidewalks.

Take the beautiful promenade at your peril. The sea is beautiful, the women are beautiful, the sunshine is beautiful, but terror comes in nights without electricidad, darkened streets when the sun goes out.

And, just in time to assuage despair, just as Cuba is the pearl of the Antilles, the jewel in the centre of this collection, its porphyry pillar an exquisite balance of ruin and beauty, is “The Piano Tuner From Guantanamo.” In this story at the hinge of the book, an elderly lady who has been “waiting for fifty years for the promise of the revolution to bloom,” is comforted by notes that fall like the torrential rain that brings death and resurrection after the drought that came with the Special Period. The expected piano tuner is her deus ex machina, just as music is the engine of her people, who are born dancing to its life affirming and destructive power. Some stones are pearls after all, praise Yemaya, the Santera sea goddess.

Hale, the Witness, the present female guest in “The Unwelcome Guest,” pulls all the strands of detail and imagination, the layers of perception that make her narratives so insightful. She knows what can and cannot be said. The facile guest is required to notice the heroism of Cuba and it is only with the most intimate friends that darker truths are revealed. The revolution is not perfect. Fidel said he would shave off his beard when it was, when the possibility of Miami Cubans returning to a remembered status quo, the dream of Tito, the bitter narrator excoriating Obama for his entente with Raul Castro in “Miami Herald” would finally be laid to rest.

Hale’s technique weaves from political to lyrical as she navigates her broken sidewalks, always reporting her peripheral vision, the shadowy sub-text of naïve idealism:

How the elements mirror us, he thinks. Soon it will be evening and everything will darken and disappear into the night, except for the crescent of a new moon and the stars so very far away. We’ll have to sit it out, he thinks, our time will come. But his next thought, rising like an alligator from the Zapata swamp, is that time is running out.

Angela kicks her stones down the road that leads she doesn’t know where. In the end, these stories are connected to that place where every Cuban family meets to share the sacraments of past and present, bread and hot peanuts in triangular newsprint sleeves, gestalt for the holy trinity sold by broken maniseros like the child genius Godofredo. Mani, the ubiquitous peanuts, are stones swallowed by a hungry populace.

As peanuts stand in for the bread of angels, holy sacraments are compromised in the struggle for survival. Church music, the under painting of this collection, is played on out of tune Russian pianos that conspire to ruin the ears of angel musicians, children born in a musical culture that perseveres and may eventually teach the world a lesson in dancing through the many veils of adversity.

Cubans are believers, for whom the blue sky familia is the model for survival on Earth, whether it be Catholic saints, Santeria Orishas or TV evangelists of the Pentecost broadcast from the Disney mainland across the Florida Straits, so close and yet so far away.

Hale captures the unity in Cuban multiplicity, her fiction true, embracing the humanity which is essential to the character of a country that remains a family defined by desperation, the promise of maybes that take so long whole generations grow old and die within the flimsy construct of a wish, like the screen dreams of the lovesick Yanelis, the betrayed child of “Firefly Park.”

TV and computer screens that promise love and access to the regular comforts of toothpaste and toilet paper to the new generation Cubans are as unresponsive as the mirage of Brigadoon. As soon as they touch the dream, it disappears. This is the wisdom of Plato, its applications as elusive now as then.

—Linda Rogers, The Ormsby Review

Quill and Quire, January/February 2019
The small city of Baracoa, in eastern Cuba, dominates Amanda Hale’s new story collection, Angela of the Stones. In fact, it’s fair to call Baracoa a character unto itself: Hale fictionalizes the lives and struggles of the city’s people while Cuba clings tenaciously to its communist political and economic system.

The best tale in this book is “Daniela’s Condition,” about a woman who decides to jump off the roof of her apartment building as a suicidal act of protest against her husband Armando’s philandering. Daniela doesn’t die from the fall —instead, she’s badly injured. Armando takes it upon himself to look after her, to minister to her copious needs and become an ideal spouse. “The truth of it was that Daniela had found in her condition that which she had lacked — the ability to draw the full attention and devotion of her husband.” It’s a surprisingly touching reversal that says much about the nature of love.

Unfortunately, most of the other stories in the collection lack a similarly interesting set-up. Angela of the Stones places too many of its eggs in the basket of place: the book hopes that merely situating these pieces in the “exotic” locale of Baracoa will entrance a Canadian audience. But this comes at the expense of other elements of good fiction — plot, characterization, writing style, and theme.

What’s missing from most of these stories is, well, a story. The opening tale, “La Huelga,” is about a church congregation upset by the departure of a popular padre named Luigi. “I, Gertrudis” is about a former nurse who shares her memories of the Revolution’s beginning with an unnamed stranger. In too many tales — including “Homecoming,” “The Piano-Tuner from Guantánamo,” and “The Unwelcome Guest” — the broader message can be summed up as “the Revolution hasn’t been all it’s cracked up to be.” It gets tedious, fast.

Hale works hard to ensure these pieces do not come off as merely touristic; her submersion in the culture of Baracoa is impressive. But with such a light dusting of characterization and a conspicuous lack of conflict in many of these pieces, it’s tough to get invested in them on a deeper level.

— Mark Sampson