Fictionalized Castro meets his match in new novel

Jun. 21, 2013 @ 11:55 AM

“King of Cuba”

By Cristina Garcia (Scribner)

In her latest novel “King of Cuba,” Cristina García (“Dreaming in Cuban,” “The Lady Matador’s Hotel”) merges the exhaustive research of historical fiction with the suspense of a thriller. Think of “King of Cuba” as a beach read with great depth, the ideal vacation book for anyone interested in the history and culture of that embargoed island to the south.
The novel follows two opposing characters – a fictionalized Fidel Castro (called at various times “El Comandante,” “El Líder” or “the tyrant”) and Goyo Herrera, an exile from the revolution living in Miami. Herrera’s obsession is to outlive his rival in ideology and romance. The chief plot of this novel is Herrera’s road trip from Miami to New York, where he plans to kill El Comandante during a scheduled United Nations speech.
The murder plot (I will not spoil it here) is the frame around which García creates two wonderfully drawn characters. Herrera’s family lost its land holdings during the revolution (“ ‘My father was the king of Cuba!’ “ he proclaims), but he has prospered in the United States with many fellow exiles. His brother died in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and his father committed suicide. Despite Herrera’s hatred of the tyrant, these are two men who share much in common – in temperament and as countrymen.
Both are in their 80s, and both suffer from multiple medical ailments. They share a disappointment with their children. Herrera’s son Goyito is a drug addict who has seen the inside of several prisons; his daughter Alina, a photojournalist from whom he feels estranged. El Comandante’s disappointment is with his extended family, the people of Cuba. In a conversation with his brother Fernando (Raúl Castro), El Comandante proclaims, “The people will sell us out for a bar of soap!” During a celebration of his birthday, El Comandante laments, “Everything in this godforsaken country turned into a dance party. … Nobody wanted to buckle down and do the hard, anonymous work of building the Revolution brick by brick.” When he is traveling to the United Nations with his entourage, he says of the younger generation of Cubans: “Not a true warrior among them.”
Herrera and his rival also share a reverence for Cuban patriot José Martí. The tyrant wants “to die in battle, on horseback, like the great Martí.” Herrera keeps “a shelf of Marcus Aurelius and Jose Martí. … Goyo could always count on them to provide a modicum of solace,” and he imagines himself as Martí taking down the tyrant.
They also share a romantic interest from their school days: Adelina, whom the tyrant wooed away from Herrera. And both men have enjoyed the company of many women during their long lives.
During his road trip to New York, Herrera stops in Durham, “the obesity capital of America,” to drop his son off at the Rice diet program. Herrera muses that “Only Americans … would pay thousands of dollars to be meagerly fed, spartanly housed, and monitored by humorless nurses.”
García was born in Havana and raised in New York, and “King of Cuba” is her latest exploration of the Cuban exile experience. To comment on the experience of contemporary Cubans and their impoverished country, she uses a profoundly creative device in the form of asides and footnotes attributed to a chef, a hustler, a crab catcher, a tobacco farmer, and other occupations and professions. García also quotes herself in two footnotes, the closest she comes to direct political commentary: “As I write, the Revolution is in its last gasp. What will come after, nobody knows.”
It is a tribute to this novelist’s skill that the reader sympathizes at times with El Comandante and his nemesis in equal measures. Whatever your view of this country’s ongoing embargo with Cuba, whatever your opinion or hopes about “what will come after,” García’s book will pique your interest in all things Cuban.