One of the fundamental functions of biography is the preservation of stories. But it also acts to resurrect the stories that may have fallen from view, reinvigorating the tales of people who, with the passage of time, have become merely names on plaques. In La Belle Creole:The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris
(Chicago Review Press, 2014), Alina Garcia-Lapuerta
aims to do just that: vividly drawing the story of Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, a woman who was tremendously famous during her lifetime but who has since fallen into relative obscurity, especially in America. Many Cubans and Cuban Americans will be familiar with her name, but many others will never have heard of her, a misfortune thatGarcia-Lapuerta's work will hopefully correct.
Just on the surface, there's a compelling plot: a Cuban girl leaves home and meets with social triumph in Europe, where she is hostess of one of the most famous salons of her day. But its the theme of ex-patriotism, whichGarcia-Lapuerta (an ex-pat herself) elegantly weaves throughout, that is most striking. The longing to return to Cuba and, ultimately, to write about it. Anyone who's ever lived abroad will recognize the tensions described when Mercedes visits her homeland only to leave it again, but this is a theme that doesn't always make it into biographies- at least not biographies of people who didn't live in Paris in the 1920s. It's even less visible in books about the lives of 19th century figures and, therefore, all the more welcome and provocative here.
Garcia-Lapuerta has done a tricky thing. She's written a book about someone a lot of people will not have heard of, from a place to which a lot of Americans, at least, will not have been. And yet she makes both the Cuba of old and her heroine feel hauntingly familiar, breathtakingly real.