4 out of 5: Guillermo Rosales, a Cuban-American writer who suffered from mental illness, committed suicide in 1993 after destroying most of his work. The Halfway House survived and is the first of Rosales’s novels to be translated into English.
In this autobiographical novel (a novella, really), Rosales’s protagonist, William Figueras, flees to Miami from Cuba. Instead of the “future winner” Figueras’s relatives expect to greet at the airport, they discover “a crazy, nearly toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward that very day.” After a couple unsuccessful moves, Figueras’s relatives eventually abandon him to a decrepit halfway house. The Halfway House, comprising Figueras’s first-person narrative of his life in the halfway house, begins with this characteristically dark and pointed line: “The house said ‘boarding home’ on the outside, but I knew that it would be my tomb.”
This compact novel (under 150 pages) is structured around the routines of the halfway house: its inedible meals, the residents’ unsanitary habits, the nightly dramas of sexual abuse, and Figueras’s rambling walks through the city. The Halfway House’s elegant structure contrasts markedly with its squalid subject. In another stark contrast, Figueras exhibits very few symptoms of mental illness and, thus, finds himself in a position of relative power. As if from the perspective of an objective observer, Figueras’s narrates his own gradual transition from victim to victimizer and then back again. Although he exerts some control over his status as a victim or a victimizer, his attempts to break out of the cycle altogether fail.
Anna Kushner’s masterful translation retains the bite of Rosales’s prose and also its subtle humor and playfulness. The Halfway House reveals the horror of a halfway house run by unscrupulous men and, at the same time, the beauty of the residents’ undeniable humanity.