Cristina Garcia found fame as a writer with her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban. A bittersweet tale about three generations of feisty Cubanas, it was a National Book Award finalist in 1992, and deliriously compared to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by the New York Times. Over the next two decades came honors such as a Guggenheim Fellowship, prestigious teaching gigs, and solid if unremarkable follow-ups such as The Aguero Sisters and Monkey Hunting. Those of us who envied her found some consolation in the thought that she never quite surpassed her initial success.
Those spiteful hopes were dashed with the recent publication of King of Cuba, a sly and viciously funny take on all things Cuban, on either side of the Florida Straits. It begins with a cranky, aging Fidel Castro (never referred to by name, but as El Comandante, or “the tyrant”) gazing out the window of his hospital room at Havana, which has become as decrepit as him. Even as his minions administer his liver pills, hide his beloved cigars, and feed him dry toast for breakfast, he curses the gusanos across the water, and farts in their direction.
The next chapter reveals the object of this venom, a retired Cuban exile in Key Biscayne named Goyo Herrera. Like Fidel, Goyo suffers from a host of physical ailments, yet what keeps him alive is “wanting that son of a bitch in Havana to die first.” Goyo yearns for Havana before the Revolution,
but his vendetta is personal and well as political, like much else in Cuba. Many years before, while they were both students at the University of Havana, Fidel had seduced Adelina, the love of Goyo’s life, who became pregnant and later killed herself.
The narrative alternates between Fidel and Goyo, who have more in common that either would like to think. Fidel gripes about his “sorry brood,” his errant sons whom he should have “tossed off the island long ago.” He chafes at his brother Raul (referred to as Fernando) who now runs things but “suctions all the fun out of a place” and has the “charisma of a box of crackers.” Goyo grieves for his dead wife and must deal with his own drug-addled son Goyito and fierce daugher Alina. Fidel must grapple with potential assassins, hecklers who interrupt his speeches, and dissidents like the Damas en Blanco who incinerate themselves in protest. He despises the yes-men who surround him, who “wouldn’t have lasted two days with him in the Sierra Maestra.” Goyo is facing financial ruin and potential lawsuits from the tenants in his dangerously unsafe brownstone in New York City.
Both men reminisce about their mistresses. Fidel recalls seducing lovely starlets aboard confiscated yachts guarded by armed frogmen, and reveals his seduction technique as,
rapt attention (however temporary), a few enhancing details (rum, orchids, fruit), seductive whisperings that paved the way for the royal screwing to come
Goyo is no slouch and remembers his “gorgeous, soft-eyed, wet breathy mistresses.” At 86, he still has assignations with Vilma Espin, a seductive bank teller, while parked on the beach in Key Biscayne.
We follow Fidel on a priceless visit to his old friend Babo (an immediately recognizable Garcia Marquez, whose nickname is Gabo) on his deathbed in Mexico City, and to a ludicrous musical staged by Raul to celebrate the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Against the advice of his brother and his wife Delia, Fidel decides to visit New York and deliver one final harangue at the United Nations.
Meanwhile, Goyo “loses himself in daydreams of revenge” and tries to join a group of would-be insurgents training in the Everglades, but is rejected due to age and brought back by Alina. When he learns of Fidel’s visit to New York, he plots to kill him and “be hailed as Cuba’s new liberator, taking his place beside Jose Marti.” Needless to say, the two feuding octogenarians confront each other in the novel’s climax, with unpredictable results (no spoiler alert needed!)
King of Cuba is laugh-out-loud funny and can be consumed in one sitting like a delicious plate of my mother’s arroz con pollo. Garcia has a great comic touch but there’s more here than meets the eye. Her breezy caricatures of El Comandante, Goyo Herrera, and those in their respective orbits are not wholly unsympathetic. Fidel laments that:
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. Every cubano craved the limelight, but thre simply wasn’t enough room for eleven million stars. Just one.
Behind the farce is the tragedy of inevitability, since neither Goyo nor Fidel can escape their fate. Nor can Cuba.