Dissident gardens
Jonathan Lethem
412 pages
Literatura Random House


To gather the American counter-culture of the second part of the 20th century –and the beginning of the 21st – in a single novel, from the first pre-McCarthy communist cells which used to take one step forward two steps back, to the Occupy Wall Street movement, passing through the Greenwich Village and even Nicaragua, seems such a bestial task that maybe only Normal Mailer or Philip Roth would have dared to carry it out. It is true that the work of these two titans radiates from the pages, but it has been Jonathan Lethem, maybe at the most decisive moment of his career, who has turned out such a novel; who has decided to try to mix periods, ideas and generations in a single work where the mortar that glues the characters together is the family ties of the lineage of Rose Zimmer, the Red Queen of the blocks of Sunnyside Gardens in Queens; Jewish, Communist and devoted to Lincoln. Indeed, this is an important novel, and it is American (or anti-American, if we crown it all), but here you will have more fun with the specific difficulties of the characters than with absolute ideas.

Rose, her daughter Miriam, her godson Cicero, her grandson Sergius and, in short, all her dynasty star in a work where idealism clashes with daily lives that are inevitably political, trying to keep afloat in the convulsion of the times while dragging along the burden of the family stigmas: arguments, deceptions, sorrows and the incapacity to forgive. Everyone in their own way, but all as human beings, mainly making mistakes and trying to live with what is left. From the specific, from chapters about a very specific context and fixed in time, and from actions as concrete as Miriam’s first time, or Cicero’s chess game against uncle Lenny, or Rose’s failure on a television show, Lethem creates the story of interwoven lives, whose passions end up captivating much more than the counter-cultural context where they move.

It is a powerful novel, dense, with characters who have been worked meticulously on the psychological level, and full of tense situations. It is a pleasure for the demanding reader and a huge applause for the author. He neither moralizes nor adopts an attitude, and he focuses on the suffering (or happiness, if it is time for it) of the characters who live those ideas, then and now.