God went on with his musings. ‘I also wanted to have a father and mother.’
‘You have billions of children.’ [replied Christ]
‘I sometimes wonder if their real father wasn’t someone else.’
‘It’s the adoptive father that counts.’
‘But, if I created them in my own image, then why do they behave as they do?’
‘You’re in no position to complain. Before I was born, you were terribly mischievous. And in any case, you gave them freedom of choice, free will.’
‘That doesn’t seem to have been a very good idea.’
‘That’s the problem. Only thinking beings can conceive transcendental existence. Can you imagine a turkey in a mystic ecstasy, contemplating his magnificent baroque sculptures?’
God frowned. He’d never been very keen on sacred art.
A few months ago the author of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro contacted me and asked if I would review his novel. Initially I was not terribly keen, partly because not many people read a gallimaufry so I didn’t believe it was worth his while sending me a review copy and partly because it sounded like something outside my comfort zone. But he didn’t seem disconcerted by the small number of readers, and I told myself that it is good to broaden your horizons, and so...
The novel pitches us into a time of heightened tension between JFK and Fidel Castro. JFK visits a captured Cuban spy to try and enter the mind of a communist, and ends up releasing him. Fidel Castro, meanwhile, regularly disguises himself and haunts the streets and bars of the city to learn the thoughts of his own people. Fátima (the place, personified, at least I believe so) telephones God to warn that war is imminent unless there is divine intervention. What will happen?
Too much, in my opinion. And also, not enough. This novel is properly crazy. I can only conclude I am the wrong reader for it, although I can’t decide whether this is due to my unfamiliarity with Portuguese literature (it seemed so overwritten) or my uninterest in the premise. I could not engage with any of the characters. This might not matter, but my entire reading experience was one of floundering – if I couldn’t engage with the characters, or the style, or the plot – because it was hard to discern one amid all the pyrotechnics – what could I grasp at? It was unlike any novel I’ve ever read before.
The preface insists, ‘This book takes place in an imaginary time and space. All characters and organizations mentioned are entirely fictional’, but the novel is stuffed with characters who have the names and attributes of real people and with repeated discussions of capitalism, communism and the Cold War. It seems to both strive for and reject political satire. It includes magical realist elements but much of the rest of the action is entirely unrealistic and fantastical, so the magical realism has no purchase. While much of it is supposed to be funny, I found the comedy laboured. In one scene, the released spy, Varadero, encounters Castro, disguised as a woman, in a night club and is overcome by lust for him. Cerqueira might have been making a point here about the nature of political power were he not also trying to distance himself from satire. He was definitely trying for comedy, and it just was not to my taste. Violence as a metaphor was used so frequently that it became tired. Every time someone looked at something, it was ‘as if’ they were machine-gunning it. Often, I wondered where we were going or what the point was. There were scenes that felt redundant – for instance, why the passage in which Ogam is called up? I couldn’t see what that added to our understanding of character, plot or atmosphere.
(Photograph of Fidel Castro, found here)
I found the writing to be over-egged. Here’s a paragraph picked at random from towards the end of the novel, just after Castro’s (Cuban) troops invade JKF’s land:
Sitting on a blue velvet sofa in one of his clandestine residences, dressed in little more than a pair of white shorts, Fidel Castro held the letter from Marcos in one hand, studying it, supporting his forehead with the other. Stripped of attire because of the tropical heat, he looked more like a retired athlete. Signs of exceptional physical prowess could still be deciphered to those predisposed to this archaeological task, finding in these ruins the remains of former grandeur. Thus, like a majestic temple that once held gods and astounded mortals but now only boasted a few columns, Fidel presented the attributes of every great monument: He had inspired countless books, documentaries, and films. The masses knew him, and his place was guaranteed in history.
To me this extended metaphor tells nothing new but just wanders away from the plot. It consumes a lot of energy but doesn’t advance our understanding, so that much of the book, which is written like this, feels exuberant yet simultaneously static. However, smothered inside the overwriting was, I felt, something original and clever about mythmaking and power trying to climb out. Although much of the comedy didn’t appeal to me, I did find the exchanges between God and Christ amusing, and there’s a nice moment after the invasion when the (Cuban) revolutionaries are astonished to find that the (US) workers are less than enthusiastic to be liberated from their oppressive overlords. And Cerqueira can be perceptive and insightful. I can’t help feeling that I just didn’t understand what he was trying to do.
(Photograph of João Cerqueira, from his website)
This was the first time I had ever agreed to review a book here in a gallimaufry, usually I write about books I have bought. I have reviewed for Shiny New Books, but that feels slightly different: a gallimaufry is entirely my hobby and usually I only write about what I want to write about. I don’t choose to write about books I haven’t enjoyed or didn’t find interesting, because I’m not a professional reviewer under any sort of obligation. I thoroughly hated this experience because I wanted so much to appreciate and enjoy The Tragedy of Fidel Castro and write enthusiastically about it, and I could not. Moral of story: if you only want to write positive reviews, only accept review copies you are confident of liking and save experimenting for your own purse.
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a USA Best Book Awards Winner, it has won several other awards and has positive reviews elsewhere on the internet so, as I warned you, I am the wrong reader. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?