This may be a solipsistic view of literature, but nowadays I only ever read books about myself.
You may think this would narrow my options down to zero: no book has so far been written specifically about me – not even my upcoming memoir How the Future Worked, which only pretends to be about me, but is in fact about Russia.
But I don’t mean this quite so literally. Rather I’m talking about books that touch a chord sounding whatever occupies me at the moment. Some such books may tell, some may show, but they all stimulate. A book may neither enlighten nor entertain, yet I’ll forgive the author – as long as he gets me thinking about things that matter. On this requirement I’ll never compromise.
Thus I don’t read many novels any longer: somehow they seem to be a thing of the past. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Austen and Dickens, Rabelais and Stendhal along with dozens of others still rate my admiration and gratitude. Yet they only rarely rate my time. As to new novels, they invariably get short shrift: a quick glance and back on the bookshop’s shelf they go: life’s too short.
Well life’s still too short, and it’s not getting any longer. But The Tragedy of Fidel Castro (River Grove Books) by the Portuguese writer João Cerqueira makes me wonder how much pleasure I’ve denied myself.
Good prose, regardless of its genre, may not always be realistic but it’s always real. Bad prose never is. Gulliver living in a land of talking horses, Georg Samsa turning into a monstrous vermin, Major Kovalev’s nose walking off his face ring true, while the naturalistically drawn characters of, say, Zola don’t.
We believe Swift, Kafka and Gogol not because they describe in minute detail the world we see around us. We believe them because they invite us into a world of their own creation, and their power of imagination and expression is such that we readily come in, shaking off our feet the dust of the world we’ve hitherto regarded as the only unassailable reality.
Placing Cerqueira into the same category as the triad I’ve mentioned would be issuing too much credit on too small an initial deposit. He needs to do much more to find himself in such exalted company. But there’s enough in his short and sharp Castro to suggest than one day he might.
For Cerqueira too swaps realism for reality, and he too creates an unreal reality that, on its own terms, rings true.
His preface lists the dramatis personae, including an unlikely mélange of Christ (who “has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, the son of God”), JFK (who “is someone other than an American president with the same initials”), God (who “does not represent God, creator of the world and men”), Fidel Castro (who “perhaps has some similarities with the revolutionary leader and dictator”) and Fatima (who “has no connection whatsoever with a particular site in Portugal”).
This lets us know from the beginning that we’re in good hands, and we let these hands guide us through a plot that’s utterly unrealistic and so much the more real for it.
The land of Castro and the land of JFK are about to go to murderous war, and Fatima appeals to God for help. The deity responds by talking his son Jesus (bearing no resemblance…) into interceding on His behalf.
Castro’s decision to invade “the land of JFK” comes from the same impulse that so many other tyrants share. They seek in foreign aggression a reprieve from domestic problems, especially when the natives become restless.
Fidel then wins the initial battles against JFK’s army but can’t win the war against the people’s certitudes. The JFKers are as reluctant to abandon their freewheeling ways as Castro’s own people are to accept that the revolutionaries’ practices are in accord with their ideals.
Faced with this seemingly unsolvable conundrum, Castro again follows the path trodden by other tyrants: he runs. Unlike others, however, whose chosen destination is typically some faraway haven made heavenly by purloined fortunes, Fidel flees to a monastery where his brain is wiped clean by amnesia.
Yet he retains enough visceral memory to start plotting against the friars. This brings back his physical memory as well, and he retakes command of his army. In the process he sells his soul to the Devil. Fidel’s payoff in this Faustian transaction again has something to do with memory, in this instance that of his people. In exchange for his soul he wants to be remembered as a hero, rather than the bloodthirsty despot that he is.
The divine protagonists set up the ultimate battle by sticking to the scenario they know best. Rather than leading a global war of mutual annihilation, JFK and Fidel stage a personal battle, starring the former as David and the latter as Goliath. Yet again David carries the day, and the weapon he launches is the all-familiar stone.
The ultimate winner is the author who manages to pull off the improbable feat of making this phantasmagorical plot believable – and an even more improbable one of producing satire that doesn’t strike one as redundant.
This is no mean accomplishment, for our modern world seems to be dead-set on outpacing any attempt to satirise it. Not only is reality stranger than fiction; it also has an unmatched if unwitting ability to satirise itself.
A sporting man, Cerqueira more or less eschews the land of Fidel as too easy a target. A quick sketch suffices, acting as a reminder of what most of us already know. Instead Cerqueira is at his most poignant when showing the spiritual emptiness of “the land of JFK” (bearing no resemblance… and all that).
What he sees in his sights, in other words, isn’t just modernity at its most violent but modernity as such. The battle between Fidel and JFK isn’t a clash between irreconcilable opposites – it’s one between cathode and anode, opposites that attract rather than repel each other.
In this sense, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is my tragedy as well. It’s a book about me, about you, about all of us. All of us should read it.