SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
THE TRAGEDY OF FIDEL CASTRO (FREIGHT BOOKS) BY João Cerqueira
COMPASSIONATE DISCLAIMER: The last novel I read before this was one of the greatest and most engaging contemporary texts I had encountered in years. My experience of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro may have suffered in comparison…
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a fun, though inelegant, novel with a strong and intriguing premise that never quite reaches the heights of its own potential. It is, perhaps, a victim of its own success: it’s got such a cracking elevator pitch that the risk of disappointment is dangerously high.
João Cerqueira’s idea is great: Fidel Castro and JFK are on the brink of a major and bloody international war, so God sends Jesus back to Earth to prevent it from happening.
That’s a story I wanna read.
Magical realism, Catholic dogma, warm, Caribbean climes, one of the most interesting global political crises of the 20th century: that’s what I was promised, and that sounds stellar.
Unfortunately, though, this isn’t an exploration of the Cuban Missile Crisis with an exciting, spiritual twist, it is in fact a novel about a fictional version of Fidel Castro and a fictional version of JFK, set in fictional places with fictional supporting characters sharing similar names but different lives to other figures involved in international politics in the 1960s.
I suppose, y’know, that should be fair enough and not a problem. The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a fictional novel about fictional events and fictional people, however the use of real names and (initially) implied real locations makes for a confusing experience. Everything we know about the US and Cuba, Fidel and JFK, all this is irrelevant: so why use their names?
Cerqueria is Portuguese, like the Nobel Laureate José Saramago, and Cerqueria’s failure to evoke an imaginary country reminded me of Saramago’s masterful success when doing so in Death at Intervals. There, a short novel is set in a fake country that is a bit like loads of real countries, but never unbelievably, there are no contradictions. Cerqueria damages the power of his own creativity by neither writing accurately about the US and Cuba nor not writing about them. The settings of the novel both are and are not these countries, and as a reader this is problematic. Cerqueria refers to events that happened in real life (irl), to people who exist[ed] irl, to places that exist irl, but the world of the novel is not ours. JFK has not been assassinated, yet is not old. BUT we are also in a chronological setting where foreign tourism is rife in Cuba, where blogs exist and where there’s been economic turmoil since the Soviet Union collapsed. BUT, military tactics are medieval, and the Cuban Revolution happened recently… we seem to be simultaneously in every year from the mid 1960s up until the middle of the last decade. And all of this, all of this, would be fine if the piece was openly set in a fictional world.
Cerqueria’s premise was too big for a novel of this slim size – I feel like he wanted to be writing a great, country-creating novel like Nostromo, but nervously balked at the task he set himself. Where this novel is at its best is in its vignettes, some of which don’t actually add to the over-arching plot of the novel and are basically successful short stories sandwiched in a longer text. There’s a great section where Fidel Castro temporarily loses his memory and becomes imprisoned in an insane asylum run by monks. The Brother Superior realises who Castro is, but no one else does, and Castro accidentally radicalises the patients into rebellion against the monks and the monks into rebellion against their leader. This section is fun, engaging, tight, and all that happens occurs within a rounded and consistent fictional setting. The parts of the novel that include Christ and God hanging out in Heaven are fun, too, and I feel there should have been more of these. Cerqueria is at his strongest when he is furthest away from the real world, when he is most deeply in his imagination and when he is writing with recognisable, historic/mythical characters in unfamiliar places.
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro suffers from accidently siting itself deep within the uncanny valley – it is too like real life to be a comfortable reproduction, but not enough like it for the reader to not notice that it’s fake. An amnesiac Castro in an asylum is an involving story, well told, and I’m pleased to have read it, but here Castro is justifiably unlike his real counterpart, whereas elsewhere he is not.
I feel a bit bad for being negative here, because the book is good fun, but it promises rather more than it delivers, switching between too many viewpoints for a text this short, trying to develop too many people in a too fictional world. It would have worked better had the world not been ours, or if it had more closely tied to real events.
A real pity, as I wanted to love this, because it’s such a good idea.
PS: Check out the fish-heavy website of one of Cerqueria’s translators, Mark Spitzer. (The other translator was Rita Silva, who doesn’t have an entertaining website.)
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.