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The facts about this The Halfway House and its writer are bleak. Guillermo Rosales fled Cuba in 1979 and shortly thereafter was placed in a halfway house, supposedly by his relatives, because of his schizophrenia. Born in Havana in 1946, he committed suicide in 1993, but not before writing a number of novels, some of which he destroyed before he took his own life.
The Halfway House (Casa delos náufragos) was published in 1987 in Mexico to “a luke-warm reception,” according to José Manuel Prieto, who wrote the introduction to the English translation, but the 2002 French edition was “a resounding success.” A subsequent edition in Spain the following year was met with “great acclaim,” bringing further attention to the author’s work, including the current English translation. Like so many novels of astonishing pain, the author did not live to witness the critical praise of his work. Like William Figuersa, the protagonist of his sad story, his flame had long burned out.
The halfway house where Figuersa is abandoned resonates with any number of comparable situations in world literature. The inmate/captives are at the mercy of sadistic overseers, pretty much left to their own meager resources, and dwelling in unspeakable filth and squalor. Some of them are crazy, but others retain incredible lucidity in spite of the emotionally destructive environment. Rosales, thus, replicates Cuba suggesting that most of the patients have simply been shifted from one prison (Cuba) to another: the halfway house in Miami.
Most of the inmates are, in fact, Cuban, suffering from an acute sense of exile and alienation, with varying attitudes toward the country of their birth and Fidel Castro. They mirror a number of the “solutions” to the Cuban issue that many Americans were suggesting during the Cold War. As one character states, “The United States has to wipe them out. Drop five or six atomic bombs! Wipe them out!”
Disturbingly, Figuersa is not simply victim but also victimizer—perhaps the most telling aspect of Rosales’ novel. The weak prey on the weaker, instituting a brutal pecking order in which no one is not guilty, except perhaps the aged and infirm who have little ability to fight back. Thus, as Figuersa is brutalized by others, he, too, brutalizes those unable to defend themselves against his own rages. Although he makes the following observation about the people who manage the halfway house where he resides, the statement applies equally to him: “I also think that you have to be made of the same stuff as hyenas or vultures to own this halfway house.”
For a brief moment, Figuersa identifies the possibility of escape, as he and another inmate to whom he develops a romantic attachment plot their departure. But that plan is abruptly thwarted and the protagonist finds himself exactly where he has already been: victimizing others in order to endure his own victimization.
Interestingly, two other vehicles sustain him: reading and dreams. Twice in the narrative, the protagonist identifies himself as a serious reader: “…by the age of fifteen I had read the great Proust, Hesse, Joyce, Miller, Mann. They were for me what saints are to a devout Christian,” and also influence his own narration. Moreover, throughout the story, Figuersa refers to a volume of English poetry, quoting several times significant poems (such as Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) which offer an additional insight into his own situation, especially the way he views at himself.
The half a dozen dreams to which he refers are equally revealing, especially two in which Fidel Castro appear. In the first, Figuersa has a small cannon which he uses to shoot at a building where Castro has sought refuge. Although the shots continue throughout the dream, Castro keeps repeating, “You’ll never get me out of here.” The implications of Castro’s longevity are obvious.
In the second dream, however, after Figuerso believes his own escape from the halfway house is possible, he finds himself at a funeral parlor in Havana. A door opens and a dozen wailing women carry in a casket containing Fidel Castro. The women continue weeping as Castro climbs out of the casket and states, “Well, we’re already dead…. Now you’ll see that doesn’t solve anything, either.”
Although The Halfway House has been proclaimed a masterpiece, I would describe it as something less. Heart wrenching, disturbing, claustrophobic and surreal, Guillermo Rosale’s novella speaks for its author: an almost forgotten cry across vast distances, a faint echo of a plea for mercy and selfhood.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.