In his third novel, Brooklyn-based Cuban translator and author Ernesto Mestre-Reed delves into Fidel Castro-era Cuba in a beguiling, meandering story that unfolds in dense and dizzying prose. Though challenging at times, Sacrificio is an invitation to slow down and pay attention. The rewards are plentiful for readers willing to give themselves over to a narrative that twists through Havana’s streets, churches, hotels, backyard restaurants and many secrets.
In the mid-1990s, Rafa, a Cuban teenager from the countryside, makes his way to Havana, where he finds a job at a tiny restaurant run by middle-aged Cecilia and her two sons. Rafa falls in love with the older son, Nicolás, though his intimate conversations with the younger son, Renato, have a more profound effect on Rafa’s life.
In the aftermath of Nicolás’ death, Renato goes missing from the state-run “AIDS sanitarium” where he’s been sent, and Rafa sets out to find him. He soon becomes entangled in a complicated web of government agents, counterrevolutionaries and the mysterious workings of a secret city-within-the-city. He discovers the brothers’ connection to “los injected ones,” a group of radical counterrevolutionaries determined to overthrow the Castro government via a delusional plan to spread HIV across the island.
That’s a lot of plot, but it’s only the beginning, as Sacrificio is Dickensian in both scope and feel. Observant Rafa narrates in the first person, but he is long-winded and unreliable, often drifting into discursive stories told to him by others. The historical backdrop—including the 1997 hotel bombings throughout Havana and Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba—looms large, and these events have cosmic consequences. Rafa recounts his own involvement with mild detachment, like someone looking back on experiences they’re not yet sure how to interpret. Fear, betrayal, longing, confusion, love, the desire for justice, the need to be seen, despair and determination—these emotions run beneath Rafa’s surface, ready to be excavated by attentive readers.
Contemporary literature often feels like it’s moving as fast as contemporary society, as if our culture of instant gratification has changed not only the way we read but also the way we write. While there’s certainly a place for that kind of literature, Sacrificio is a reminder that other kinds of books are worthwhile as well: slow stories, disorienting yet compelling books that require work, old-school dramas that nevertheless speak to the fraught complexities of our current political reality.