Most of the icons of the Long Twentieth Century (defined by most as stretching from the Great War to the suicide of the Soviet Union) have left the scene. If you were on team communism, chances are you in formaldehyde or you have turned over your kingdom to an heir. If you were on the capitalist side of the field, you’ve likely been given a nice state funeral by the victors, long after, sadly, your brain had turned to jelly. However, there is one leader who is still in game, a survivor who has managed recently even to return to the big screen, via an undisclosed location, to inspire the masses. That man, of course, is Fidel Castro. A stroke may hobble The Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, thus speeding up the transition to the Great Grandson of The Leader, but El Comandante continues to lead.
Castro has not yet published his memoirs, but is said to be working on them since formally relinquishing power several years ago. Norberto Fuentes in his delightful, brutally honest, and satirical book The Autobiography of Fidel Castro has beaten him to the punch. Fuentes was a companero of Castro and his regime until the late ‘90s until he became persona non grata and had to flee to Miami. Jean Jacques Rousseau invented the superstar memoir genre with his Autobiography, and, it is important to note, that the veracity of that book was challenged from the outset. Rousseau, ever the bad boy of the Enlightenment, was said to have shaded things in his direction. Even though we know that Fuentes book is a work of fiction, his many years at Castro’s side have made his work indistinguishable from “true” memoirs.
The English translation is roughly 550 pages, which is abridged from the Spanish version that is nearly three times as long. Accordingly, the pacing seems a bit off; there is much about Castro’s rise to power, very little about Cuba’s involvement in the wars in Africa, the rapprochement with the Carter Administration, Glasnost, the fall of the Soviet Union, the execution of several high ranking Cuban officers for corruption in the ‘80s, etc. One can guess that they were left on the cutting room floor and since Fuentes was there for most of the period, perhaps they were left out of the Spanish version as well, just to play it safe.
And it is just as well because this book has the voice of a very young man, making Castro seems very alive, not yet ready for the embalmers needle. As with most political leaders, but especially revolutionaries, any memoir is also about ideology and Fuentes has a lot of fun with the myth of infallibility of dictators. Every single decision has to be correct and it is interesting to see how Castro airbrushes the record. The voyage on the Granma from Mexico to the Sierra Mastre has long since passed into Cuban mythology. What is less well known, is that leaving the Granma intact was a military blunder; Batista’s planes were able to hone in on the ship and trace the movement of the guerillas from that point and pound the insurgents from the air. More chillingly, Castro claims responsibility for Che’s death in Bolivia; it was all according to plan to use Che as a martyr for the Revolution. None of this sounds funny, but the ex post facto reasoning leads to some very tall tales that wouldn’t be out of place in the works of Mark Twain.
A curious omission is the figure of that Great Communicator: Ronald Reagan. Perhaps Castro is jealous and since he is still fighting the good fight; one shouldn’t give credit where credit is not due. What is remarkable, though, is the symmetry between this book and Edmund Morris’s Dutch. Morris, an old public relations hand, was taken to task for inventing a fictional character to carry the narrative along. Alzheimer’s had long robbed Reagan of his memory to remember his own lines so Morris was accused of taking advantage of a senile old man. But Dutch was a blast to read and laid out in a properly elegant fashion, with photographs of the handsome actor breaking up the gushing text. And so, Fuentes has given service to the Revolution he has long since abandoned; by writing Castro’s autobiography for him he has given notice that El Comandante is not ready for the formaldehyde of history just yet.
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