04 February, 2014

King of Cuba: When tragedy turns into parody

King of Cuba
Cristina Garcia

Review by Jorge Reyes

In 1959, a country-wide feud started to divide my family. My family wasn't the only one, of course.  It was a country-wide feud.  It's a pretty old feud that has lasted so long, to this very day in 2014.  Not sure if by now we can call this tragic, or merely farcical.  Just don't tell that to my elders, some of whom have died cursing to die before the feud is over, others so old and with so much time in their hands that to them the feud has just begun.

The year 1959 is, of course, the date of the commencement of the Cuban Revolution when a young, dashing, rebel by the simple name of Fidel who masterminded a guerrilla warfare from the Sierra Maestra mountains with a few dozen men and women ultimately took control of Cuba's political system.  This Fidel promised from his lair deeply entrenched in the mountains many things that sounded too good to many Cubans, such as democratic and fair elections, the rule of law, economic prosperity, etc.  Who, of course, didn't want these things for their beautiful paradise, so mired in dictators, suicides, histrionic politicians, and economic dependency to foreign powers?

It's an old history of almost biblical proportions, but one that still resonates in certain parts of Miami by the mere mention of the Fidel Castro name; something akin to a curse and a fighting word. 

Whatever your take on this may be, this has been quite an adventure for a community that still calls itself “exiled,” though to most inter-generational Cuban-Americans this description of being exiled may seem a bit out of touch with their daily lives. Never mind that to most Cuban-Americans, Miami is home.  Never mind that Cuba is just a side-note to their family's history.  Never mind that as of the writing of this essay, it's been almost 55 years in the making, with no end in sight or rapproachment.  

That seems to be the premise of Cristina Garcia's King of Cuba, a new addition to an already impressive body of work. This is her sixth book.  Her first book in 1993, Dreaming in Cuba, though a powerful first book, was a typical Latin-American novel of magical realism.  The plot followed the same slumbering feel of magic, potents, and, yes, dreams. Garcia was still seen Cuba and the past through sepia-toned eyes, like I used to do myself. Her words, her sentences, her characters all had an aesthetic quality that was tonal, musical to the ear, dream-like in its unreality. 

In this new work of fiction, King of Cuba, Garcia seems to start poking through the holes of sentimentality and nostalgia and, for once, sit back and have a last laugh at that strange island still immersed in so much lore and to which many still talk as if it were a paradise of the bluest seas, the greenish mountains, and the most idyllic childhood dreams.

King of Cuba is above all else a funny book, taking as parody two old men representative of two political types: (Goyo, the octogenerian living in Miami), and a dictator by the name of El Comandante, (Fidel Castro). El Comandante has resigned from his position as dictator due to some unspecified illness and in his stead, his brother Fernando (Raul Castro), has taken on the hold of power, albeit a bit forced. Fernando is not cut out for the job, as El Comandante keeps reminding himself and those he surround himself with. Fernando is more into the perks of capitalism such as Rolex watches than he is about communism. He is portrayed as a failed opportunist, if anything.

Goyo spends his days in his condo on Key Biscayne reading a blog about the dictator's every move, hijodeputa.com. Written by Cuban paid informants within El Comandante's inner circle, it monitors El Comandante's every heartbeat, every bowel movement, every breath he takes. Through the website, Goyo is able to live in a virtual-like, voyeuristic reality in El Comandante's minute-to-minute existence. Goyo's wife of many years, Luisa, has recently passed away and Goyo spends his days listening to boleros by his wife's headstone and bringing her violets, her favorite flowers. He has two children, a woman more concerned with her body weight than Cuba and another son, Goyito, now in his 60's, described as a drug addict, prone to paranoia, most of the time in jail. In other words, Goyito is a failure and everything that Goyo did not want in a son.

Goyo, of course, has a much younger mistress, a bank associate named Vilma Espin. Vilma Espin, of course, was Raul Castro's wife until her death in 2007. She was a staunch communist until her death.

Goyo's main objective at this point in his life is to outlive El Comandante long enough to enjoy the sweet ironies of history. As he muses when El comandante kicks the bucket, “the oldest exiles, now barely distinguishable from the dead, would miraculously spring back to life for one last fiesta with the news. When that hijo de puta kicked the bucket, everyone would be partying like it was 1959.” Amen to that statement. That's what many of the older generations of Cubans expect that would happen, a backward glance at 1959 in all its splendid 35 mm Technicolor.

As it is to be expected, both Goyo and El Comandante are old, senile, decrepit, but still unwavering in their commitment to the reality of their existence, or their dreams. Both share a deep-seated hatred for what the other represents and in this ideological battle, there is no compromise.

But Goyo has a plan to liberate the country of his birth and leave something for history. El Comandante is planning a trip to speak at the United Nations. Goyo has concocted a scheme to kill El Comandante at point blank during his speech. Though crazy and implying his own death, what makes this worth it is what he hopes will be inscribed on his tombstone is “Here Lies a Cuban Hero.” By killing the Devil that has divided families and destroyed his country, he will do what no one has been able to do in more than 50 years.

However preposterous, Goyo plans this with meticulous care up until the minute they each see the other face-to-face, at long last. After so many decades, after so many tears and separations and deaths, it will all come down to a few seconds and if the plan doesn't fail, what then? Though his plan is writ to fail, if it doesn't fail and Goyo will go down in history as the true hero in this war of ideals, always with the expectancy that “everyone would be partying like it was 1959.” What greater accomplishment, indeed? 

 It can't fail. Will it fail?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this book and didn't like it. It is not like Garcia's previous novels. This is almost a caricature of people, place, times.