There have been many writers who used themselves as protagonists in their own story - Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and more recently Cuban novelist Pedro Juan Gutierrez. All the these authors expertly blended true facts from their lives with a generous amount of literary invention. Sometimes it’s done so well that the reader cannot distinguish between the author and “the author” whose adventures we follow within their narratives. Cuban novelist Edmundo Desnoes is one of those writers and his most recent novel Memories of Development follows the life of a writer and painter named “Edmundo Desnoes”, a once ardent supporter of the Cuban Revolution who defected to Italy in the late 1970s and turns up in New York City a few years later.
Written in the form of a diary (without any specific dates indicated), he reflects over his current life - a painter who copies classic portraits of women only to render the figure as an old woman, detailing each wrinkle, fold and sag, seeking eroticism in the aging body. He is currently a man of means, having inherited a generous sum of money from his recently deceased younger brother, who fled Cuba many years before. The first half of the novel focuses on his current life as well as reflections on his days as a devout revolutionary and the slow disillusionment with the Castro regime which eventually led to his defection. With old age approaching and facing an uncertain future, he becomes increasingly isolated, especially due to his rapidly deteriorating faith in humanity as a whole. Ruminations on the failed ideals of the revolution, the quaint ideas behind religious faith (and how the two are more alike than most realize), his relationship with his dead brother, who was forced to flea the island due to his homosexuality (and eventual demise to AIDS), it is a very existential glimpse into his own life, where nothing has much meaning and any search for one seems irrelevant.
Eventually, he leaves New York City and moves upstate, purchasing a car and a cabin with some of the money his brother had left him. There he lives an isolated life, only occasionally interacting with his neighbors and eventually a lonely Jehovah’s Witness who seems to have more on her mind than trying to prosthelytize to the curmudgeonly artist/writer (and a detailed account of their sexual dalliances is the first time I’ve ever read anything like it, when you consider their ages). His sense of isolation doesn’t so much turn into despair as it does a sense of freedom, as he daily writes in his journal his thoughts, feelings and remembrances of a life long since faded into the past (peppered with a generous amount of literary quotes from classic Spanish and Latin American literature and poetry). There is also a trip across country with a Barbie Doll that has to be read to be believed.
However, this being fiction after all, there is a unique twist to the story that the reader isn’t quite prepared for. Something happens, just as the reader has become used to “Edmundo”’s unique philosophy of life and original thoughts and observations on the nature of aging and the unanswerable questions he does try to work out through his writing but to reveal it here would only be a spoiler and ruin the bittersweet, thoughtful and emotional ending to the story. Desnoes’s writing style is nothing short of stunning and he is a gifted prose stylist without it being pretentious and overblown. You will be sucked right in from the first paragraphs and you won’t want to let go and this is due to the many laugh out loud moments you will encounter throughout what at times can be a very sad and bleak story about a man coming to grips with the march toward death. A highly recommended read.