In Review: The Tragedy of Fidel Castro

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The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira is a playful and satirical novel which undermines notions of literary realism right from the start. Naming his characters JFK, Fidel Castro, God and Christ, Cerqueira is careful to point out that, with the exception of Castro who ‘has some similarities with the revolutionary leader and dictator, Fidel Castro’, all the others bear no resemblance to their famous namesakes. However, there is always a knowing wink beneath the words, a feature of Cerqueira’s writing style throughout: a combination of comedy, parody, black humour, political satire and poetry. This initial tongue-in-cheek technique prepares the tone for what’s to come. Just as the characters are seemingly fictitious, so, too, the novel ‘takes place in an imaginary time and space.’ An ageing and ailing Castro is pitted against a youthful US president who’s now been dead for fifty years. In the Prologue to the story, God and Christ are portrayed  in a touchingly human light, honing in on their basic father-son relationship, with God using all his powers of manipulation to persuade his boy to return to earth for a second time, shifting responsibility, ‘that ancient cross’, on to the shoulders of his son. The parallels between this and the bestowal of Free Will on to humankind are understated while obvious. In both cases, God is let off the hook. Christ’s response is eloquent and displays the author’s command of comedy at its finest. Whilst aware one should never argue with one’s parents, as their main concern is for the wellbeing of the child, an additional clause is introduced which alludes to Christ’s question prior to his crucifixion: ‘Father, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Revisiting this tragedy from a comic perspective – key to Cerqueira’s approach – Christ muses on the fact that his faith in his father having his best interests at heart is not exactly watertight given that ‘it doesn’t seem like it, past experience has disproven it, or the future does not advise it’.

As well as comedy, Cerqueira has a beautiful sensitivity for metaphor and this is used in an abundance of places. For example, JFK visits a prison where a Cuban spy is confined and the prisoners are described as actors enacting a variety of scenes in which the plot and the parts played change on a daily basis. Later, the trial of a man supposedly framed by Castro is depicted as ‘a masked ball’ and, when Castro appears to quash a demonstration, he becomes the conductor of ‘a silent orchestra, which operated in perfect time, producing music to his taste. No variations in rhythm or alterations in pitch disturbed its monotonous repertoire.’ A much later scene between Castro and J Edgar Hoover is likened to a game of chess, with Hoover once imagining he’d be Queen to Castro’s King but realising that now, he was merely Fidel’s pawn.

Cerqueira’s deft ability to mix politics and poetry is particularly striking in a scene between JFK, his Counsellor (who resembles a modern-day spin doctor) and Varadero, the Cuban spy. The latter is, for JFK, a means of deciphering the workings of Castro’s mind and thus fully understand ‘the enemy’. The three men engage in political debate while skimming stones across the sea in a way which triggers similarities with the Cold War situation. At the same time, their shared humanity is foregrounded as when pebbles collide, a spontaneous and collective apology is uttered. A dialogue replete with political dogma is positioned within the poetic reality of their situation and this is further highlighted when the three men float innocently and naked beneath the stars.

The first part of the novel ends with JFK on a boat in sight of Cuba and a delightfully ironic reference is made to Marxist ideology. When the Counsellor asks why he allowed Varadero to go free, JFK – emblematic of free enterprise and capitalism – responds with the Marxist dictum, ‘human beings are the product of their circumstances.’ Perhaps, in a brief and concise way, this captures the notion that Capitalism and Communism are simply two sides of the self-same coin.

The second part of the novel plunges us into Castro’s Cuba which isn’t depicted as a pleasant place. Infested with cockroaches and lacking medical supplies, the stench of sexual tourism fills the air before being replaced by the haze of cigar smoke emanating from a room where Castro’s holding a tense meeting with the Central Committee. Reminiscing on his revolutionary past, the succinct nostalgia of Castro’s memories reads like some utopian dream. During this meeting and as a tactic for confronting JFK, Castro announces Cuba open to international tourism. The shock amongst the delegates succinctly captures the perspective of Cuba as a country in which direct opposition to Castro is ill-advised and, in the past, was fatal. The apparent if not blatant hypocrisy of his declaration is signed and sealed as ‘a trap for capitalism’ but, transported away in his car with darkened windows to one of his secret residencies:

Fidel might also have thought, without straying too far from the

truth, that it was the revolution itself that travelled inside that car,

concealing itself in shame at having done something disgraceful.

This was a dishonoured revolution that was trying to escape the

opprobrium it deserved, the flight from infamy dragging guilt in

its wake or perhaps the guilt impelling the flight. These ruminations

might have acquired an unequivocal touch of realism had the car

swerved off the road into a deep ravine or been involved in a

head-on collision, though in reality, nothing like this occurred.

It’s at moments like this, as elsewhere, that the author’s own opinion sometimes interferes with the narrative. While not undermining the charm of the writing, the underpinning ideologies cannot be ignored. As a left-wing reader and tacit supporter of Castro – or at least, a believer in the original revolutionary ideals – I’m forced to sit upright as soon as particular kinds of criticism come into play. In part, this is a good thing as it makes me re-evaluate my own belief system but – to use a Marxist pun – it also alienates me from the narrative itself, jolting me back into a ‘reality’ which Cerqueira takes pains to distance himself from.

Later, too, the author’s viewpoint disrupts the fictional flow. Having lost his memory, Fidel is mistaken by a group of monks for a madman, a status possibly attributed to him by the writer. When asked about his identity and purpose, Fidel replies he doesn’t know but even if he had responded with the truth, the monk’s original assumption wouldn’t have changed:

These men had vast experience in their field and were fed up

with compulsive liars who considered themselves important

historical figures, and always the same ones: Napoleon, Caesar,

Fidel Castro, etc.

At such times, I’d prefer it if the author took more of a back seat and didn’t impose his own beliefs. Having said that, almost every sentence of this novel is replete with layers of depth and complexity which continuously point towards other possibilities and meanings and this always has to be borne in mind.

This is particularly clear in a scene where Castro, dressed as a woman, enters a club in order to evaluate the impact of capitalist entertainment on the revolutionary project while also giving him an excuse to enjoy himself without being ridiculed by his enemies . Varadero, the Cuban spy, is overcome by lust at the sight of the female Castro and engages in a frenzied dance with ‘her’. Disguise is often cited as characteristic of the Cuban mentality. Political disguise, in terms of the feigned adoration of Castro, and religious disguise, a curious conundrum in a Communist country. When the Spanish first took Africans as slaves, they were forced to become Catholic on pain of death and this resulted in the hybrid and secretive nature of Santería, a religious practice predominant in today’s Cuba. Although Castro’s regime outlawed religion, many of his supporters were believers in Santería and, according to certain sources, so is Castro, too.

The third part of the novel thrusts us into a bizarre US plan to defeat Castro by means of a ‘hole strategy’ before moving swiftly into a conflict between the Padristas and Putistas. The rival sides set up absurd activities to muster up support for their cause, culminating in a public fight between the leaders of the opposing parties. While this section is written quite imaginatively, it becomes an overly lengthy digression into fantasy, albeit containing metaphorical references to fundamental political conflicts.

Following this, there is a rather beautiful reflective piece by Fidel himself where he writes of his failure to free the masses from their bestial instincts. Justifying his use of force across the years, Castro cites the sacrifice of Christ as the best example of the need to employ brutal methods for the sake of the common good: ‘Only in a utopian society, where there is no evil or greed, could you go without the instruments of dissuasion used to assure collective happiness.’ It’s here that Cerqueira’s writing is at its finest. Sophisticated, complex and forever alluding to the inherent contradictions within each and every ideology. It could also just as easily be read as an eloquent defence of the resort to unsavoury tactics in the name of achieving valid humanitarian ideals. It is a section in the book of which, I’m sure, Castro himself would be proud and, having justified all of his actions, including his own position as self-appointed ruler of Cuba, the passage ends with words of Castro’s own: ‘History will absolve me.’

In a subsequent conversation with Varadero, who was immediately imprisoned on his return to his homeland, it’s Castro’s egoism which is placed under scrutiny, with Fidel asserting that ‘My person is inseparable from the revolution. One cannot exist without the other.’ Castro’s ‘tragedy’ is also articulated during this discussion: he destroyed his own work and came to resemble those he’d overthrown. Aiming to liberate Cuba from Batista’s dictatorship, Castro installed his own form of dictatorship in its place.

Refusing simplicity, Cerqueira’s novel has an exquisite ending which opens up yet further levels of meaning. In the final stand-off between JFK and Fidel, the latter is struck on the head by a stone thrown by the former. This brings Castro to the ground in a reversal of the David and Goliath imagery used by Castro to express Cuba’s unlikely resistance to the United States. Varadero meanwhile displays nothing but allegiance and compassion for El Comandante, a man whose orders he obeyed and was jailed for his loyalty.

Perhaps this is the true tragedy at the heart of this novel. That our beliefs are inscribed on us to such an extent that we can never quite see the wood from the trees. Perhaps, as a left-wing and critical reader, Cerqueira opened my eyes to a different version of events.

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a profound comment on political ideologies and the poetry of the writing intensifies this. Whatever side of the political fence you prefer to sit on, Cerqueira’s  novel will not leave you untouched, outlining as it does in playful ways the fundamental conflict characteristic of the twentieth century.

Lizzie Eldridge is a Scottish writer, actor and teacher who lives and works in Malta. Her novel, Duende, set in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War, is available on Amazon. Described by one critic as ‘one of the great love stories in literature’, it’s already received six 5-star reviews. While a work of fiction, real-life figures enter the story, including Salvador Dalí, Ortega y Gasset and, most significantly, Federico García Lorca.