Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Books

Review: 'King of Cuba' rooted in long-simmering political strife

Goyo Herrera, old and sick and angry, has only a couple of reasons to stay alive. Second among them is that "he didn't want to miss the pachanga in Miami when word spread of the tyrant's death. Other cities had disaster relief plans, backup generators, designated emergency shelters. Miami had a victory parade prepared to march down Calle Ocho on an hour's notice. ... When that hijo de puta finally kicked the bucket, everyone would be partying like it was 1959."

That tyrant, of course, is Fidel Castro, although Cristina Garcia's new novel, King of Cuba, never calls him by name. He is El Comandante, El Lider, El Jefe, El Caballo (that last a nickname he now finds embarrassing) or, most often, simply the tyrant. And Goyo's first reason for continuing to live is to kill the tyrant, even if it's the last thing he does.

Garcia, who was born in Cuba in 1958 and raised in New York City, has been writing about the experiences of Cuban exiles since her acclaimed first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, in 1992. In this mordantly funny and insightful book, she focuses on two characters: Goyo, an exile who has made good and retired to a Miami condo, and the object of his hatred, the tyrant himself.

Chapters of King of Cuba alternate between the two men across several months in the approximate present. Peppered throughout are sly asides and footnotes by a Greek chorus of other Cubans (including a few from "Cristina Garcia, novelist").

El Comandante, as you might expect, has a colossal ego, so big that he is enraged at the collapse of his body as he approaches his 89th birthday: "The tyrant was accustomed to being exceptional, and so he didn't expect that rules governing ordinary human mortality should apply to him. ... Dying, he'd decided, was a fate for lesser men."

But this is just one of the disappointments he frets over. The Russians, his family (including every one of his multitude of offspring), his Revolution — all have let him down. Although in the past he had "left his mark on history with ink, and action, and blood," now his power is so diminished he is reduced to "aiming his scrawny buttocks at the Strait of Florida" and breaking wind.

Still, even if his creepy brother is nominally running the country, he is El Comandante, and he's looking forward to marking his birthday with a re-enactment of the battle of the Bay of Pigs, complete with vintage B-52s, a cast of thousands and a hand-picked handsome young man to play him in his prime.

The tyrant knows the potential for betrayal is all around him, but one thing he doesn't fear is the exiles in Miami, who "couldn't get anything off the ground. Put two of them in a room and you immediately got a conspiracy, or un relajo total (a complete mess). An hour into planning a commando raid, everyone in Miami would know about it, down to the abuelitas shopping for yuca at Publix."

Over in Miami, though, revenge sustains Goyo when nothing else remains. His demanding wife is dead, and to his surprise he misses her. His two children are no comfort; daughter Alina is a "blatant liberal" and a photographer whose current project — nude portraits of the aging denizens of his building — makes no sense to him, while son Goyito suffers from the effects of mental illness and "(h)alf a century of heroin and buttermilk donuts."

Goyo does find some solace in the arms of a sexy bank teller, but most of his energy is directed toward the tyrant, whose every move he follows on an exile website that purports to have spies in El Comandante's own house.

Goyo has good reason to hate the man. In addition to the standard exile's grudge — his wealthy family lost everything when they fled Cuba in the wake of the Revolution — he seethes because his younger brother died at the Bay of Pigs, their father committed suicide, and, most unbearable of all, the tyrant seduced, impregnated and abandoned the great love of Goyo's life, a young musician named Adelina, who also took her own life.

Material success in the United States in the decades since hasn't eased that pain for Goyo. But Garcia deftly shows us the links between the two men. It's not just that they knew each other: "Back at the university, people had often mistaken the two of them. They'd both been tall and handsome then, and were known to drop Latin aphorisms into casual conversations." Both are philandering, ambitious, controlling, egotistical and utterly convinced of the beauty of a good cigar.

Doppelgangers then, now they share the indignities of age. Garcia blurs the line between magical realism and dementia with both of them: Does Goyo really plunge into the Everglades and miraculously find a band of exile guerrillas, only to be plucked away by his daughter in a helicopter? Does the tyrant really have conversations with a mysterious man named Vasquez, who can produce a flame to light their cigars by snapping his fingers? And will they end up in the same place at the same time and find fate awaiting them both?

King of Cuba has its roots in long-simmering political strife, but it is finally a novel about the human condition, about aging and loss and undying love for a country that once was paradise, at least in memory.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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