Cuba and the United States are like a couple in the throes of a long grand passion: They love, they hate, they fight. There's an ugly divorce. Yet they continue to gaze longingly across a crowded stretch of sea water. The makeup sex will, no doubt, be explosive.
Despite the rift, 50 years old this week, Cuba and the United States spend a lot of time obsessing over each other. The exiles dream of returning when Fidel Castro dies; Cubans on the island dream of when the U.S. embargo will be lifted.
For Carlos Frias, a reporter with the Palm Beach Post (and former staffer at the St. Petersburg Times), Cuba was this forbidden, semilegendary place, the country his father, Fernando, vowed no member of the Frias family should set foot upon until el Lider Maximo departs for the big Comintern in the sky.
Then one day in 2006, Frias' editor proposes sending him to the homeland he has never seen. Fidel is gravely ill, maybe even dead, according to rumors racing around Calle Ocho. Cuba in the twilight of the Great Revolutionary's life is a journalist's dream. But how would his father react?
Lucky for him, after a pregnant pause Frias Senior simply says, "Take me with you." In a sense, his son complies: The stories his father told, fragments of a lost world, a few names and addresses scribbled on bits of paper, impel him around the island as he searches for the celebrated Cuba of golden memory.
Cubans living in Florida, even those born in the United States, must always feel a double consciousness. They are fluent in two cultures, one that looks forward and one that looks back.
Frias expresses this tension with sincerity as he encounters the place that is, for him, at once alien and familiar. He has only 12 days to recover three generations of lost experiences. Such a short visit might seem a thin premise for a book, but Frias makes up for it with honest feeling — it isn't just an assignment, it's an encounter with ghosts.
Frias organizes a wealth of detail into day-by-day chapters, bringing us along as he navigates the beautiful, crumbling streets of Havana, the slums of Cardenas and traces of his parents' young lives in Marianao.
The Frias family had been successful cafe owners and entrepreneurs in pre-Castro Cuba. Of course, the Revolution changed all that: Their businesses were seized, and when Fernando Frias tried to escape in the mid '60s, he was caught and imprisoned. In 1969, he finally left for Miami.
His son visits the sites of the cafes, the family home and his mother's school, encountering cousins, former employees and neighbors. Staying with relatives in their tiny, shabby home, he despairs at their poverty. Mosquitoes feed on them, raw sewage runs in the streets, the heat is heavy as an anvil: "This is everyday life for Cubans. For my family."
Frias is a good reporter, with an eye for dramatic moments — and dramatic moments are hardly in short supply in Cuba. He writes movingly of his frail Tia Sofia, the cousins who cherish the copy of his wedding video, and Alina, the woman whose loyalty to the memory of Frias' family may have deprived her of her own life.
Unfortunately, Frias wrings high emotion out of every situation. He works himself into a hissy fit over pizza de perro, worrying that things have gotten so bad on the island that people have taken to eating man's best friend, only to discover that the topping in question is, in fact, hot dog slices.
Frias can sound naive, as when he is shocked and saddened to hear that "Gangs of boys run the schools. Children knife other children. Girls go home pregnant." Surely he knows this could also be said of schools in Liberty City or Jacksonville.
Frias seems unwilling to admit there are Cubans who still value the Revolution, and people in the larger world who admire its ideals, if not the monstrous corruption of them by Castro's regime. He sees some tourists: "The boy is wearing a shirt with the image of Guevara and the girl an olive cap with a red star, the uniform of the revolutionary soldier." He longs to ask them if they have any idea "who that man was."
It seems never to occur to him they could know perfectly well who Che Guevara was: a leader who thought the poor of Cuba should have a chance at a decent life, an enemy of the American-backed dictatorship that preceded the anti-American dictatorship.
Frias writes powerfully and chillingly of his father's imprisonment and torture in La Cabana, contrasting the injustice of his ordeal with his eventual freedom and success in America. But what about the other notorious prison in Cuba? Defenders of "freedom and justice" who happen to be American have tortured people — many of them innocent — in Guantanamo. Frias is a newspaperman: He should know things are never black and white.
Yet even with its flaws, Take Me With You is a compelling narrative of a country that holds a strangely significant place in the minds of Americans. But times are changing. Maybe Barack Obama will address the silly standoff between the little island and the superpower so we can all experience the beauties of old Havana and Varadero, and Frias can write a sequel.
Diane Roberts teaches English and writing at Florida State University.