10 December 2013

Tragedy of tragedies

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira, translated by Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay (River Grove Books, 2012)

What if Fidel Castro is still alive? I mean the Fidel Castro born in 1926, Cuban communist leader, fiery orator, amply bearded, cigar-blowing military dictator, architect of prole dreams. That Fidel Castro, the fictive one, the figure mediated by television and consciousness. What if Fidel confidently walks the pages of a historical novel as if to prove the point that our greatest tragedy is to laugh when tickled and to cry when pinched?

What if, moreover, JFK is dead? We know he's not so we'll let the idea slide. And what of the cultural impacts of embargo? The ecological benefits of isolationism? The second coming-like arrival of the missile crisis?

As one novelist is fond of saying, with a smirk: Everything that begins as comedy ends in a prayer. Or a holy mass. Mass demonstration, demonstration rally, rallying cry, crybaby, babe in the manger, angry mob. There's a horde of comic associations putting many witty, lyrical realist (true) novels in the pale.

Once the official version (said to be true) had been launched, other versions (said to be false) multiplied; but as the first was false and those that opposed it were closer to the truth, truth and falsehood changed places, with each in the domain of the other. This might have seemed confusing, but in reality, no one had any doubts as to which was which.

Instead of static literary sameness coming from the tried and tested, true novel (the "official version"), the plot of this satire takes the romp to a new level of kinetic energy: "free of rules, logical sequence, or common thread". The threads stitching this satirical novel are showing, but they nevertheless leave the reader in stitches. Unraveling which was which was the co(s)mic challenge that puts the slap in slapstick and the black in black comedy.

This risqué novel by the Portuguese writer João Cerqueira is an exercise of sustained, dynamic comedy. From one ridiculous situation to another, Fidel is entangled in the fabric of fiction where he finds himself hostage to an imagination gone berserk. Restraint is gone, or has gone haywire.

Nearby, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman (who was, in fact, Fidel Castro in disguise) was shaking herself frenetically, spreading the aroma of expensive perfume ... sensually swaying her voluptuous body ... [an] unexpected carnal vision....

... Suddenly, there erupted the rumble of a salsa mixed with electronic rhythms, provoking a collective frenzy, as the dance floor was taken over by eager dancers. Consisting of felines and pachyderms in roughly equal measure, they squealed with delight, becoming entwined in complex dances in which the concatenation of two opposing forces transformed the four-legged tangle into a sensual writhe.

If there is a unifying thread in Fidel and JFK's revolutionary entanglement, it is perhaps the ideological absurdity of caricatured communism, especially as it closely resembles religious dogmatism. Hence, the proliferation of jokes at the expense of religion and biblical stories. Our Fidel, for example, upon hearing the story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba, could not contain his ideological fulmination even when he was struck by short term amnesia:

When the abbot finished his tale, words escape from Fidel's mouth. "This fictitious story is a good example of the abuse of the elite on the working classes, of the use of religion to legitimize the excesses of the powerful, and of the systematic punishment of women in imperfect societies that have yet to reach the superior level of scientific socialism. David is a despotic monarch whose wealth lies in the exploitation of an oppressed people deprived of access to education. He resorts to the brute force of the army and to the legitimating arguments of priests so that he can remain in power. His deprivation leads him to seduce a married woman of lower social standing. He then conjures up a strategy that will see him freed of her husband.

And he goes full steam from there, explaining the circumstances and motivations of Bathsheba and Uriah under the watch of "bloodthirsty" Capitalism.

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a succession of overboard, overwhelming comic set pieces. It overwhelms because the scenes change in light speed. Like its eponymous ruler, the satire overthrows a lot of things historical, among them the tragic seriousness of (fictional) realism. Like Fidel in his prime, the novel never loses steam, it goes on and on, for prolonged distances, for hours and hours on end, bouncing a lot of provocative ideas. And like a fictional Fidel, it has to come to an end. Unfortunately, that is the tragedy of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro.

"Are you aware that it is you who will destroy your work? That you'll end up resembling those that you overthrew?"

"This is the price I have to pay. My tragedy."

The tragedy of tragedies.The stubborn cycle of history. The numbing repetition.

The reader's shrug.

In TTOFC, João Cerqueira produced a "miracle cure", an infidel, complete with a visit from Christ and accompanied by rumors of a total solar eclipse. Its politico-religious skewering is an often diverting comedy insulating readers from the legendary halls of holiness and banality. Readers, have faith.

I received a review copy of the book from the author. Also check out the post from Caravana de recuerdos.


  1. After Richard's review and now yours, Rise, I need to pick this one up.

    1. Scott, you know what you're getting: a well-researched alternative history. (grins)

  2. Glad to see your take on this, Rise. It was a very funny book, of course, but I like how you compared its method of satirical attack to "Fidel in his prime" going on and on "for prolonged distances." You funny yourself!

    1. Richard, the eponym's prolific spirit was so in the book. To revolution! yada yada yada.

  3. This was such a good read! I hope more people pick it up!

    1. Ya, a book to relish, but maybe not by religious citizens.