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Fidel in the Literary Imagination

By Anna Kushner

I was born to Cuban exiles after the Revolution. For me, Fidel was always there, openly when his image paraded across the TV news in our Philadelphia living room, or implicitly when I watched movies like Woody Allen’s “Bananas.” He was the ghost in the room when my parents returned from a trip back to Havana in 1979, their photos of relatives I’d never met and stories of how much had changed on the island infused with a continuous, underlying chant of “this is because of Fidel.” He was the perennial invisible dinner guest, whether we were discussing politics or not.

Fidel even made an appearance the first time I brought my now-husband to dinner at my parents’ home, almost twenty years ago. The catalyst? A bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream, which my mother explained was our favorite. My father matter-of-factly added,It’s Fidel Castro’s favorite flavor, too.” Thus began an argument in which my mother berated my father for not poisoning Fidel’s ice cream, or worse, when he had the chance, in the early days of fighting alongside him in the Revolution. The argument was typical of the dozens that punctuated my childhood. My mother was resolute in her disdain for Fidel from the start, while my father saw him as someone who had betrayed his ideals.

(Image, left: From the cover of Noberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro. W. W. Norton.)

Now it is 2016 and Fidel himself is dead, but the literary representations of him are not. Reinaldo Arenas refers to him as the “Represident” in his novel The Assault, and as “Fifo” in his novel The Color of Summer, in which he even imagines “Fifo’s fiftieth year in power” in 1999 (while the author himself died in 1990). Guillermo Rosales, a friend and contemporary of Arenas’s, imagines the attempted assassination of a Fidel-like character named Cornelio Rojas in his short story “The Phantom Bunker” and dreams of Fidel’s funeral in a scene in The Halfway House (excerpted in WWB as “Boarding Home”).

A central character in Cristina Garcia’s 2013 novel King of Cuba is “El Comandante,” while Norberto Fuentes’s novel The Autobiography of Fidel Castro aims to channel the voice of the real Fidel, blurring the lines between fiction and history. And Ana Menéndez’s 1999 short story “In Cuba I was a German Shepherd” proves that nearly everyone has something to say about Fidel by highlighting the Cuban exile pastime of telling jokes about him.

Image: From “26 July 1953.” Drawing by Roberto Alfonso (Robe 62), written by Norberto Fuentes. Published in Mella 08/62. From the collection of Norberto Fuentes.

Fidel has also been featured in many comic strips. In 1962, the Cuban magazine Mella used the attack on the Moncada barracks as the subject. In one strip (above), we see the capture of fugitive Fidel Castro and his appearance before the judges. While he is portrayed as a communist superhero in Mella, Maxence Emery and Thomas Humeau take a more critical angle in their graphic novel exploring the 2003 Black Spring (below).

Image: From Black Spring, Maxence Emery and Thomas Humeau, trans. Edward Gauvin. WWB.

And then there are works that do not mention him at all. In the Cuban-American TV series “¿Qué Pasa USA?” (1977-1980), for example, I don’t recall the father Pepe Peña or any of the characters ever speaking Fidel’s name. Instead, they focus on the challenges of living in America, stuck between both cultures. One particularly poignant episode depicting the Peñas’s struggle with the question of whether their move to the U.S. is transitory or permanent has been making the rounds on the internet this past week. It is easy to infer that the bottle of champagne Pepe claims to be saving “para Cuba” is meant to be consumed after Fidel’s death, but it is interesting to note that he never actually says those words.

Regardless of whether Fidel has been referred to by name—as “el barbudo” or some other epithet—or pointedly omitted in conversation at the dinner tables of Cubans on and off the island, his death does not signal a neat end to our personal and political debates regarding his deeds. It has merely put an end to speculations of where we will find ourselves upon hearing the news or who will outlive him and who won’t. Our fears, our desires, our losses, and our inability to comprehend how a single person could wield such power over such a vast number of lives remain, and to deal with these, we have literature. As such, Fidel will likely continue to populate countless works.

Read an excerpt of Norberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, translated by Anna Kushner

Read an excerpt from Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House, translated by Anna Kushner

Read an excerpt from Maxence Emery and Thomas Hameau’s graphic novel Black Spring, translated by Edward Gauvin

Read Alisa Wouk Almino’s review of Guillermo Rosales’s Leapfrog & Other Stories

Published Dec 5, 2016   Copyright 2016 Anna Kushner

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