The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, by Norberto Fuentes (trans Anna Kushner). W.W. Norton. 574 pp., $17.95.
One of the most striking attributes of the human mind is its ability to cancel out, in the pursuit of self-interest, the needs and even the existence of others, while maintaining the pretension of working for those persons’ well-being. This aspect of life is one of the most notable and ironic points of exploration in The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, written by Norberto Fuentes, an author with direct experience of life under, and persecution by, Castro’s regime.
Recently released in paperback by Norton, the novel takes the structure of what might be termed a “false” autobiography of the dictator, as imagined by Fuentes. (It is notable that the real Castro has written and published both the first volume of an autobiography covering his childhood and development as a revolutionary, as well as a “spoken autobiography” transcribed and organized by journalist Ignacio Ramonet.) Fuentes’s often violent descriptions of Castro’s mindset are beautifully composed, with a highly strung treatment of a life led under a seemingly unsustainable and unstable amount of pressure. The narrative covers a wide span, starting with panoramas of his childhood in the small town of Birán, Cuba, his youth as the well-to-do son of a prosperous Spanish plantation owner, and his study of law at the University of Havana (with a description of his subsequent legal practice and political ambitions). Fuentes also covers his revolutionary activities (including his famous imprisonment (and subsequent pardon) for leading an attack against Batista’s troops) and the guerilla fighting and retreat with his troops into the Sierra Maestra Mountains during the Revolution. And then finally, no “autobiography” of Castro would be complete without the Revolution’s aftermath, with its multitude of political executions and interventions on the part of the government of the United States (including the Bay of Pigs invasion) and the death of Che Guevara in La Higuera, Bolivia, at the hands of the CIA.
On one literary front, Fuentes uses these famous passages of Castro’s life to illustrate the dark psyche of a villain. Throughout the novel Castro comes across as an utterly unscrupulous leader and unreliable narrator—”narcissistic” does not go far enough to describe the state of his paranoia and self-regard—who views the world, and more specifically what was brought into the world by the Cuban Revolution, only as it relates to himself. (This Castro even rates his achievements as surpassing those of Christ!) In that he feels himself to be synonymous with the Revolution, the Castro of the novel discards enemies and people whose behavior is not beneficial to his vision alike (including Guevara—it is suggested that Castro sends him to bring revolution into Latin America on a suicide mission) in the same way he casts aside self-doubt. The “autobiography” may seem written a tyrant’s justification of his methods, but it would be more accurate to say that the narrative is more of an exercise in memory than apology. “I’m going to die,” the Castro of the novel says, “with the immense satisfaction that I will have to be judged in absentia. . . . When is it that history judges definitively and without appeal?” In other words, if history is a form of memory, what will Castro care of history in death, the negation of memory?
Indeed it is perhaps on this point that Fuentes allows the form of a false autobiography to become a metaphor for the act of memory: “[If] anything has caused me great concern as I write these pages,” Castro writes, “it’s proving that the past is as unfathomable as the future. The more I try to make my way through its labyrinth, the more I notice its vastness.” It is not, then, that Castro is an unreliable narrator, so much as there is no such thing, according to Fuentes, as a reliable narrator:
Recollections become works of fiction from the moment you start to recall them to your memory. One second after events happen, when you begin to remember and reassemble what you saw according to your own personal interests, the doubts begin and then you start to fill in the gaps, and I’ll tell you from the onset that you start rearranging the scenario according to what you remember a moment later.
Why does Fuentes choose this strange literary form to create a portrait of Castro’s life? Some reviewers have suggested that Fuentes wrote the book as an act of revenge against the dictator, and it is also probable that the book is a plea for help for the Cuban people. Fuentes has certainly had his differences with Castro. In a New York Times profile written soon after his release from Cuba in 1994, it is noted that early in Fuentes’ career the author worked as a war correspondent sympathetic to the aims of Castro’s government before losing favor as a revolutionary writer when he published stories sympathetic to troops opposed to the Cuban military (a strange harbinger of this novel). Fuentes’s sympathy for Castro’s politics was apparently completely severed after the executions in 1989 of two military officers admired by the author, and he later tried to flee Cuba with his family by boat. This attempt was unsuccessful and Fuentes was captured and imprisoned, his release only due to the petition of the human rights organization PEN and writers such as Norman Mailer. He then came under house arrest and state surveillance and was barred from travelling outside the country to literary conferences or from publishing within Cuba. This led to a hunger strike and intervention by Gabriel García Márquez, who plead Fuentes’s case to Castro himself, after which the usually intransigent dictator remarkably allowed him to leave the country.
Considering Fuentes’s experience of Castro’s governance of Cuba it is also plausible that The Autobiography of Fidel Castro was written as a false account of another’s historical perception because it would allow Fuentes to deal directly with many uncomfortable assertions—allowing greater leeway for conjecture on Castro’s habits, for example—that the narrative arc of a history book would not permit. Take for example the metaphorical difference between reading Shakespeare’s Richard III and a historical account of that king; fiction—even if it is incorrect at times—quite clearly allows the author to conjecture about the psychological depth of a person and to develop a wider theme on human experience by discussing their character. In this way The Autobiography may be less a book about Fidel Castro per se than it is about the consequences of following egotism to its logical conclusion, and by extension blotting out the world in pursuance of one’s needs.
Since the book exists as “literature” rather than “history,” Fuentes also can make claims that are not immediately verifiable: how, for example, he suggests that Che Guevara was purposefully sent out of the country by Castro to fall prey to an almost certain capture and death, all for the sake of political expediency and the symbolic value of turning Guevara into a martyr. In another, similar instance, Fuentes remarks on Castro’s material rewards of power, such as the adoration of him, and his attendant supply of luxury goods, without simply turning his book into libelous material. By turning the story into an “autobiography,” Fuentes gives a human element to Castro’s story that is noticeably absent in other histories of the Cuban Revolution and from other accounts of the notoriously private dictator, but he also puts forth Castro’s moral failings in direct prose via a manner of poetic license.
What is even more disturbing than the possible revelations of extreme violence within the Castro regime is that the leader seems almost tame when compared to his opponents: the reader of The Autobiography struggles to imagine what the alternatives to a governmental style such as Castro’s are, especially since the dictator’s enemies, such as the generals Eisenhower and Batista, come off as much more brutal in their methods than Castro. This is just one of paradoxical elements of the book: the villain of The Autobiography of Fidel Castro may be Castro, but to put it more precisely it is any representative who misuses power, and on a wider level it is also the all-consuming nature of human selfishness. The tragic protagonist is then the majority of the population the world over who do not have political agency: they are the clowns in Fuentes’s story who are shuffled on stage and quickly and quietly or violently make their exit.
The best representative of such a morally innocent population within the book is Che Guevara, who here appears for brief passages as a sort of fool but also very much as a hero, if not a misguided one. Two particularly profound symbols of how the Castro of the novel perceives Guevara, versus how Guevara is seen by the world at large, are experienced through a description of two of the most iconic portraits of Guevara. Both are shot from below; in the first Che is looking out of the frame into the distance, as taken by Alberto Korda, an image that has become embedded within popular culture; in the second, taken just prior to his execution, Che stands with his guards after his capture. The Castro of the novel undercuts both images as mere accidents in myth-making:
A poorly framed picture in dull shades became one of the iconic images of our time by virtue of the Argentine turning away from Sartre [visiting Cuba at the time] for just one moment, annoyed by the hysterical shrieking of some woman who had lost her husband in that tragedy at the port and was unleashing her intense sorrow at the foot of our stage. . . . The same thing would happen to him the morning of October 9, 1967, a few minutes before a Bolivian army sergeant killed him with an American M2 carbine . . . [who asked] if the Argentine would be good enough to go outside and allow him to take a photo of them together as a souvenir, which Che agreed to unquestioningly. . . . Right away, [the sergeant and photographer] stood next to Che and said to him, “Look at the birdie,” drawing a spontaneous and pleasing smile out of the prisoner. But a cloud suddenly came over Ernesto Guevara’s face, at the very moment that the Bolivian official clicked the shutter button to take the last picture of Che Guevara alive.
It is difficult to know if these passages truly express Castro’s relationship to Guevara as they existed in life, or why Fuentes describes them as such. In Coltman’s account of Castro’s life, for example, Castro and Guevara are described as having mutual respect for one another; Guevara’s death came about more from recklessness than as the result of a suicide mission. Coltman also relates a story by a confidant of Castro’s saying that the dictator was so distraught by news of Guevara’s death that he “locked himself in his room and punched and kicked the walls.” By contrat, in Fuente’s novel Guevara’s death is barely given more than a metaphorical shrug by Castro. 
It may also be possible that Fuentes uses images such as Guevara-as-fool and Castro-as-manipulator to illustrate the way that history exists in terms of direct and indirect experience, often with an immense disparity between the two. This disparity is most clearly evident in Castro’s use of realpolitik to accomplish his ends, particularly the gulf between what Castro says and does (just as in the novel our idea of Che Guevara is filtered by an accidental photograph, so that he appears to be adopting a heroic pose when in fact he is merely distracted), creating an enormous sense of irony throughout the narrative. To give another example of the sheer brutality of some of Castro’s logic within the novel: compare the ostensible goal of the revolution as a collective action meant to liberate oppressed people with several scenes in which Castro convinces various soldiers to allow themselves to be executed for the good of the revolution—a tactic used by Castro simply in order to get this or that particular man out of the way while not causing consternation among people close to those sentenced to death. Castro not only accomplishes this feat after conversing with the men by appealing to their self-regard but also gets them to bravely volunteer for their own executions. It is truly a remarkable expression of human arrogance. In Fuentes’s novel it is a tragic inverse of capitalistic ideology, and it is indicative of Fuentes’s conception of Castro as a sort of Pilate jesting the powerless, sending them to their executions so that he can get on with his day. But it is also the profound expression of the feeling that for most people there is no escape from false consciousness except into one of its other myriad forms, or into death.
Jordan Anderson is a writer living in Oregon whose main interests are the 19th century and contemporary literatures. He can be reached at anders [dot] jordan [at] gmail [dot] com.
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