The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales | Book Review

Guillermo Rosales (Havana 1946 – Miami 1993) was a Cuban writer of excellence with a very unique style and profound level of sensitivity shining through his words. Prior to his death, he destroyed all his work except for two books ‘El Juego de la Viola’ and this one, The Halfway House, published in Spanish under the title ‘La casa de los náufragos ’ literally meaning The House of the Shipwrecked. Learning about the author himself from a little information that is available online we can assume that The Halfway House is somewhat autobiographical. Born in Cuba, Guillermo Rosales was initially supporting the revolution but as he continuously grew disillusioned with the communist totalitarian state, he fled Cuba for the USA. During his exile years he lived in Miami where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and similarly to the protagonist of his book, William Figueras, Guillermo spent many years in halfway houses, places for people suffering from various mental illnesses. The Halfway House has to be read in the light of Guillermo’s personal experiences and the modern history of Cuba. Guillermo Rosales left us too early – he succumbed to suicide in 1993 after the period of time he spent in the halfway house in Miami.

The Halfway House reminds me of another Cuban masterpiece, Before the Night Falls by a great Reinaldo Arenas who also died in 1990. I highly recommend you this book as well as the 2000 film made under the same title with Javier Bardem.

The Halfway House is a haunting exploration of darkest corners of human nature and the tragic impact of the communist totalitarian regime on the Cuban people, and on the ones who managed to flee the regime: political exiles. This book is a truly timeless, frontierless masterpiece and shines the light on the evils of the totalitarian regime in a way that only a few books were able to express. It is as impactful as Solzhenitsyn’s or Herling-Grudzinski’s or Shalamov’s books. The degradation of human nature illuminated by Rosales also reminds me of Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas Chambers, Ladies and Gentlemen, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The portrayal of the human condition in all these books including the Halfway House is bleak, showing the worst aspects of humanity.

As someone with parents from Eastern Europe who first-hand experienced life under the totalitarian communist regime and its impact on their lives and the lives of next generations, The Halfway House is a book which is very close to my heart and feels not only like the part of the Cuban history but also the history of Eastern Europe.

In The Halfway House we follow Guillermo Rosales’s alter ego, William Figueras, a victim of his unfortunate circumstances and times during which he lived. We find out that William’s book was suppressed by the regime in Cuba, and it had a degrading impact on his life. He arrives in Miami 20 years later dejected, beaten by the life and circumstances. William was a “toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychic ward that very day”, so-called the halfway house. He had a history of mental illness (similarly to Rosales) and is placed in the home for people suffering from mental illness – the halfway house located somewhere in Miami. 

Our protagonist loves literature, especially English poetry. William is well-read and often references books from world literature including Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Sartre. However, when it comes to making the ends meet, that rich intellectual baggage did not prepare William for the cruelty of daily existence in the halfway house where people are violent towards each other, urinate in the hallways, abuse each other and subjugate each other to all forms of tyranny. It seems as if William traded one tyranny in Cuba, the one imposed by the communist regime, for another type of tyranny in the halfway house in Miami, the one that speaks to the darkest depths of human nature enabled by the indifference of the rest of community – it is an inferno.

Rosales’s criticism of Cuba is not merely a condemnation of totalitarianism, it is also a stand against what totalitarianism does to sheer humanity of the individual. It is important to note that the protagonist, William is not only a victim.  He initially was an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel’s regime (similarly to Rosales), and to the extent he was complicit in the evils committed on behalf of the regime. As an exile William becomes a victim of the broken American dream, and he finds himself in one of those halfway houses where he again turns into an abuser towards other more vulnerable members of the community.

The Halfway House illuminates the failures of believing blindly in the American dream which is not granted to all the exiles. Most people will struggle through most of their lives dealing with trauma of fleeing the repressive regime, leaving their families behind, their culture, traditions, and all they have been accustomed to. Some of the exiles like William must face the psychological consequences of their own behaviour during their time in Cuba which allowed the communist regime to flourish.  In present day, the likes of William have to deal with the never-ending struggle of daily life living abroad where they are not always welcomed even by the members of their own Cuban community.

Rosales questions the ethics of other Cuban immigrants’ attitude towards their own countrymen in need. With a few exceptions, there seems to be no kinship between William and other Cubans he encounters in Miami’s Little Havana. In his own words, he is ‘a total exile’, exiled from Cuba as well as from the Cuban community in the USA.

In the Halfway House where William is placed, he is one of the residents who possibly has the most understanding of the surrounding reality compared to other residents. In the existence of total despair, he feels as if he was granted some modicum of power which he uses to abuse other residents. William occupies the same role in the halfway house as he did during his years in Cuba: ‘a victimiser, a witness, a victim’. The nightmarish halfway house can be understood as a metaphor for life under the totalitarian communist regime and what it does to human nature, mind, psyche, and human sensibilities.  In the halfway house William is aware of the gut-wrenching abuse happening there, and in some way, he is a victim himself, but also, he becomes an abuser to others. The atmosphere of the halfway house in Miami is asphyxiating.

Roasales portrays a very different account of the lives of the Cuban exiles to the one often shown on TV and in literature. In general, the life of immigrants in the USA is depicted through the prism of either being successful or more or less successful when it comes to financial stability. Even though many exiles found basic notion of freedom in their adopted country, the existence for many of them fleeing totalitarian regimes is hard, depressing and sad. The ones who are not up for so called success are ostracized by other exiles, often including their own families.

Rosales wrote a painful testament of the times in which he lived. He also poses the question about the indifference of the community for allowing the existence of brutal regime in Cuba on one hand, and on the other the existence of infernos like those halfway houses in Miami. Rosales puts guilt and responsibility on the community which is only focused either on getting power like in Cuba, or only focused on achieving the American dream at all costs like in Miami.

William is a complex, ambiguous, nuanced character, a victim, an abuser who is complicit in the totalitarian machinery of cruelty in Cuba and in the tyranny of the halfway house in Miami.  He is also a survivor of the totalitarian regime in some sense but the damage of living under the Castro’s communist regime remained with him. William is unable to adapt to his new country, or to leave his experiences behind and find a new path to so -called American dream.

In the end William realises his guilt as a participant, conscious or unconscious, in the machinery of abuse and he is stepping on a path from victimhood to responsibility. Finally, his love for literature becomes a vehicle to create the testimony of the Inferno in which he lived in Cuba and then in the halfway house in Miami. William might be lost but believes in the importance of truthful testimony of the Inferno he experienced as an effect of collective indifference of the rest of society.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book. It is a short read but extremely powerful.

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