A review by ANDREW SEAN GREER for The New York Times.
Fictio cedit veritati. Fiction yields to the truth.
This phrase, learned in his Jesuit-educated youth, passes through the mind of the Castro-like figure called El Comandante in Cristina García’s new novel, “King of Cuba.” He is recalling a former adviser who presented El Comandante’s life story as a novel. Although he is a man who has kept careful control of his public image — even personally choosing the handsome soldier who will play him in a re-enactment of the Bay of Pigs invasion — the octogenarian tyrant is forced to admit that he has been drawn to this fictional portrait, “flawed, but irresistibly grandiose and compelling.” He sits back in wonder, admiring this “veritable magnum opus.” The same is true of García’s project, which takes one of the most famous political figures of the 20th century and, rather than documenting his history, imagines him as a man — and, through him, imagines his country.
“King of Cuba” takes up two parallel story lines. One features the world-weary dictator, the other an elderly Cuban émigré named Goyo Herrera, living in Florida. El Comandante (variously referred to as “the tyrant,” “the despot,” “the Maximum Leader” and “El Líder”) is preparing for his birthday celebration, which prompts him to reflect on what he knows are his last days. Raging against the betrayals of old age, he also condemns the stupidity and vanity of those who surround him. Various women from his past — his ex-wife, his lovers, his present wife, even his mother — return to him in person, in memory or in visions as he goes about the daily routine of running the country he loves, guided by the ideals for which he has made so many sacrifices, in his own life and in countless others: “Even death was a form of socialism, leveling the noble and the ignoble, the king and the humble . . . to the same classless fate.”
Over the course of the novel, El Comandante leaves Cuba only twice: once to Mexico City to visit a García Márquez-like novelist, his old friend Babo, who lies on his deathbed. They trade witty observations on mortality, and on their shared past. “The revolution might be a mangy, one-eyed cat,” Babo jokes, “but it’s our cat.” The second of El Comandante’s visits, to the United Nations, brings him face to face with those who seek to assassinate him (“This was the last real power left to him: to thwart his enemies to the bitter end”) and with the only historical figure named in the book, former President Clinton. “Tell me, hombre, how do you stay in such good shape?” Clinton asks. El Comandante’s wry response: “The embargo, mi amigo.”
García alternates her account of the tyrant’s days and nights with scenes depicting those of Goyo, a fellow octogenarian whose family was forced to flee when the government nationalized its holdings, and whose furious hatred of El Comandante stems not only from his stolen legacy but from a stolen love: a young girl seduced away from him by the lascivious leader (the novel’s only misstep). These two men share certain qualities, among them a skirt-chasing affliction, but García works carefully to avoid reducing the novel to a set of mirrored characters. Goyo suffers ailments of old age that are similar to those of El Comandante (the loss of friends, disappointments about his children and his loves) and his life exposes him to similar accidental dangers (fire for El Comandante, a car crash for Goyo) and similar settings (swamps, meetings with women), until it brings him at last to New York. Yet these echoes don’t dominate the narrative; instead, they create a pattern beneath it as García invests her characters and their memories with rich detail. In the end, her subject isn’t the dictator or his nemesis. It is Cuba.
“Never in the history of mankind has one small country accomplished such gargantuan deeds.” This comes from a speech the tyrant gives before fainting on live television. Goyo calls Cuba “a cursed place,” condemning it as a country “where treachery is the common currency.” But Goyo’s homeland is never far from his mind, and García vividly captures his sense memory of the place he left behind: “its dialects, its minerals, its underground caves, its guajiros, its hummingbirds, its fish, its chaos, its peanut vendors, its Chinese lotteries, its cacophonies, its myths, its terrors.”
Sensing that the act of following these men’s thoughts and emotions so intimately might make readers restless, anxious for wide-angle shots of the country that haunts them, García accedes, salting the narrative with weather reports, blog posts, interviews, tourist comments, even her own writings, presented as interludes between sections of the narrative and as footnotes that add a counterpoint to the characters’ statements and beliefs. When El Comandante moans about corruption and theft, a small voice at the bottom of the page, that of a tour guide, adds: “Stealing is an ugly word. . . . Everyone here works for slave wages, so I ask you: who’s robbing whom?” Handled too roughly, such additions could be irritating, coming across as a tricky way to insert information the author hasn’t managed to work into the text. But in “King of Cuba” these small cries give ordinary people a voice, expressing their suffering, their perseverance and, above all, their humor.
When confronted with a novel inspired by real people, it’s often tempting to link each fictional detail to a historical one. But to treat García’s book simply as a way to “learn about” Castro or Cuba, like an animated travel diary, would be to misunderstand its purpose. El Comandante’s wives seem nearly identical to Castro’s, with the misplacement of a letter or two, and Castro’s eldest son and daughter are given to Goyo with clearly identifiable names. We visit the tyrant’s memories of Che Guevara and the swamp where he and other revolutionaries landed; he recalls the actual Bay of Pigs invasion before the comical re-enactment begins. But such historical details are readily available elsewhere. García hasn’t recreated Castro for us as a wax statue for her story to pose beside. Rather, she has made a man of her imaginings, probably not much like the real Castro and yet, like the protagonist of the novel written by his former aide, perhaps far more captivating and, in a way, more convincing. His gross vanity, his rage, his heartrending despair for his nation, come less from history’s Castro than from Shakespeare’s Lear.
García has allowed herself to love her despot as much as she loves his enemy, Goyo. As Milton did for his Satan, she gives El Comandante the best lines (“But remember this,” he tells a group of hunger-striking prisoners, “you won’t create a new solar system in which I am not the sun”) and the most elegant despair (“Non est ad astra mollis e terris via,” he tells himself when contemplating suicide. “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars”). García hasn’t betrayed Castro’s critics or comforted his admirers. This graceful consideration is given to her own creation and, thereby, to us. “In the end,” Babo tells the tyrant on his deathbed, “I want to leave behind something imagined, not simply recalled.” This is the gift García has given to the country of her birth — and to us.
For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/books/review/king-of-cuba-by-cristina-garcia.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0