There are some political figures so larger-than-life, an almost mythical shroud surrounds them. To tackle said myth is to dismantle that shroud, to take what is said or isn’t said and turn those tall tales into something more human and touchable.
Author Cristina García does just that in her latest novel King of Cuba, a both hilarious and tragic take on Cuba’s infamous leader Fidel Castro. But this is not the Fidel of the revolution, kicking the imperialists out of the small Caribbean island. This Fidel is an octogenarian, whose empire is slowly crumbling but is still grasping tight to the myth that made him great. King of Cuba is also about Cuban exile Herrera Goyo, who has finally decided to embark on his life-long quest to kill El Comandante. Crisscrossing between Cuba, Miami and New York, King of Cuba follows two old men forced to deal with the ghosts of their past and trying to make sense of lives led.
My introduction to García’s work goes way back to 1992, with her first novel Dreaming In Cuban. In that book, she tackled themes of family, politics, and memory that resonated with me. She went on to continue with prolific works like The Augero Sisters, Monkey Hunting, A Handbook to Luck, and The Lady Matador’s Hotel. Her work has been nominated for a National Book Award, a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and an NEA grant.
It is García’s King of Cuba, however, that I find really pushes her work, through these two protagonists we learn to both love and hate equally. Although the backdrop is political, the novel’s core is about family and regrets.
I recently chatted with García, and the conversation flowed from her use of Russian literature to write her latest, to the tradition of Latin American dictator novels, to tackling the man that is both “everywhere and nowhere.”
The Rumpus: You never name him, but El Comandante is a definite take on Fidel Castro. What makes him real is that he’s like any old viejo who doesn’t want to eat healthy foods, who is annoyed all the time, and cranky. How did you come up with the character?
Cristina García: My deep concern in writing about these old guys was I thought, How am I going to keep this interesting? They are mostly in bed, or entertaining their ailments, or in their heads about the past, inflating the past. How am I going to do this? I actually started looking around for books where not much happens. I stumbled across, pretty quickly, this fantastic 19th century Russian novel called Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov. In it is a sort of minor Russian nobleman who essentially never gets out of the bed. It’s like an 800-page novel. This is what I wanted. It’s a wonderful novel, and so much happens, and he never gets out of bed except one time, briefly, and it’s a disaster and then he goes back to bed. That gave me the courage to take on these men, in their glory lives—not much is necessarily going on physically, plot-wise or whatever, but there’s still a kind of richness of resistance that I could chronicle.
I also thought in terms of El Comandante, he’s such, in a strange way, a distant figure. Nobody knows him but he’s also in everybody’s living room. He’s the elephant in the room that everybody can’t stop talking about. I wanted to know whom this guy is, what was his childhood like. And I had to start imagining him beyond the speeches, beyond the vitriol, the exile side, beyond the temporary adulation on the Cuban side. I wanted to get inside and, like I do with any character, is get in their bloodstream. I tried to take him on as a man that so happens to have the ability to wake everyone up to go see the dolphins in the middle of the night.
Rumpus: For me, both Goyo and El Comandante are the same person. Both want to be immortalized.
García: I felt that more and more as I was writing them. Their passions, their sense of self-righteousness is so similar. It’s crazy to me in a way that the exile of that generation, and the theme of that generation in Cuba, go to great pains to differentiate themselves, when really I consider it such a false dichotomy. They are one in the same. Part of the reason they can’t talk is because they are suffering from the same delusions. So yes, that was definitely part of it. And I’m glad that it came across that way.
Rumpus: How did you write Fidel without it being a simple indictment of him?
García: There was no agenda. I really wanted to try to imagine and inhabit the man—[the] fictional version of him because obviously I took tremendous liberties with him and his history, relationships, and I had a fun time doing that. In Latin America, there is this literary tradition of The Caudillo novel, Autumn of the Patriarch, Feast of the Goat. There are the dictator novels. The famous El Presidente, the Guatemalan novel, to me is still probably my favorite from the 1940s. I reread all those books because I wanted to do the Caribbean, the Cuban version of that. And Castro outlasted them all. What would that look like from his perspective after fifty-plus years?
Rumpus: There are some great moments of both of the protagonists being so disconnected with their family. Goyo with his daughter, El Comandante with his brother. What was it about the family dynamic that you wanted to portray?
García: The florid, and specifically, the Cuban dysfunction of it all. We are in this political context and it reverberates this kind of Cuban historical backdrop, of course, but that competition between brothers; the impossibilities of a generation apart—and in the case of Goyo being this mercantile creature and the daughter being an artist; these impossible gaps that exist even in between those who are members of the same family, purportedly close. There is the deal of the family and then there is the reality. I don’t think whether you are El Comandante or Goyo or the person next door, anyone is spared. All of the infelicities and indignities and misunderstandings that come with being a family.
Rumpus: In the novel, you play up both sides. One side of El Comandante and his excess of violence and food, while the prisoners are starving themselves. And then there’s a scene of Goyo with his son in a restaurant, and his son is gorging himself.
García: That is so fascinating. I never thought of Goyito gorging and the scene with El Comandante necessarily as related, but it makes perfect sense what you are saying. I think it was unconscious on my part. I didn’t necessarily connect those two but I like your thesis. I can get behind it. Truly.
Rumpus: That one scene where El Comandante has his meal, while prisoners on hunger strike are forced to dine with him, is by far the most violent yet funny scene.
García: That scene came after a friend of mine—Alfredo Franco, who is a teacher and a writer in New Jersey—told me about how in the early days of the revolution, when all these people were going to the firing squad, he [Castro] would sit there and have lunch served to him and watched while people got killed. They would put out a table for him, and he would sit there and flare his napkin out and just enjoy his meal while those people were being shot. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I didn’t independently confirm it but that’s one of the fun things about writing fiction as opposed to being a journalist—which I was before—is that I could have never printed that without checking it out thoroughly.
But that’s what got me thinking about what kind of resistance you need to have to inure yourself, render yourself immune of others’ extreme suffering. That was a very radical scene in the book, but in many ways, was it any less radical than Goyo’s mother rejecting him his whole life? There’s damage with all the little d’s to big D’s. Who’s to say what’s worse, really? I try to do equal opportunity skewering as much as possible. Nobody is less or nothing is unscathed, even with the commentary in the footnotes. Even I, as an author, am implicated in all this. I’m writing about it and I’m also joking about it. It is kind of somewhat profane, too.
Rumpus: I love the use of Cuban voices as footnotes throughout the book. These footnotes were like a Greek chorus, shouting out what is really happening on the Island. Can you tell me about including them? Are they true voices?
García: The voices came directly out of this trip I took to Cuba in April 2011. The book was pretty far along by then. At that point, back and forth with these octogenarian titans, I was feeling claustrophobic, and if I can’t stand another minute with these guys, who else is going to be able to stay in the same room with them?
I also felt out of touch. I hadn’t been to Cuba in over a decade. I went with my daughter and I met up with my friend Linda Howell, who knew Cuba very well and to whom the book is dedicated to, as well. It was just in those couple of weeks that I heard a million voices. What people were complaining about? That whole thing with the exploding coffee-makers? That was the first thing everybody kept telling me. The first day I was there, it was like, “Oh, las cafeteras, blah blah blah. So-and-so lost an eye. Decorations on the ceiling and it’s so dangerous to even make coffee! How can we protest if we’re worried about dying from our cafecito?” This is all I heard for the first two days. It was about the exploding cafeteras. How would I have even known that without going there? I had to hear about that. I had to hear what was the best flavor of ice cream. All those sensory details and complaints and harangues or whatever definitely all stemmed from my trip there. I couldn’t have done it without having my ear to the ground.
Some of them were absolutely real voices, like the woman who lived between those two old mansions in Dorado with her little Galapagos turtle and a kitty. She did have a Galapagos turtle that someone smuggled in. From that kind of thing, to very made-up things. I saw this guy in Trinidad begging on the streets, and he had one leg and I imagined him a veteran of Angola. He was the right age. I didn’t really know him. It was just a way to access these voices that would also contest and combat the so-called official histories that both Goyo and the Comandante represents. The shouting match. The reality and the life that is being lived elsewhere.
Rumpus: Did you ever think you would be writing about Fidel Castro?
García: I had no idea. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to write Fidel Castro. I’ve written so much about the fallout from the revolution in one way or another. In Dreaming in Cuban, and in so many ways, the revolution was the big before and after in 20th century Cuban history. Even now 21st century. So Castro was always there in the background, or blaring on the television, or being fantasized. I have one scene in Dreaming in Cuban that one of the characters has a sexual fantasy. He is sort of everywhere and nowhere.
I really felt that now that Goyo was going to be reckoning with his life, it became irresistible not to write about Fidel. What the hell must he [Fidel] be thinking, looking out on his Island and seeing the corruption? All of his dreams, kind of laid out before him, for better or worse—mostly worse, it seems to me. Just that Grand Reckoning. And I have to say it made me horribly and acutely aware of my own mortality. To be waking up every morning as an eighty-six-year-old male was not fun. And my daughter—I was starting to write this at the end of her high school year; she’s a senior in college now. Damn, I was getting dictatorial. “Why can’t I have the car?” “Porque lo digo yo.” It was really bad. I became omnipotent on the page and utter frustration in my life.
Rumpus: Your writing also tackles the idea of living a life of displacement.
García: I think that’s the nature of immigration, dislocation, exile. I always thought of this title of this book by Cuban writer Gustavo Pérez, Life on the Hyphen. You can hang on one end of the hyphen or the other, you can walk and talk and do it, but your sense of belonging is more tangible. That you’re not really ever at home, completely accepting, in this in-between state.
I think that’s probably truer for my parents in a way. I grew up in New York. I feel I belong here but I also think it’s given me a privileged position because I’ve been downwind of this dislocation craziness my whole life. It’s a privileged position from which to tell stories about identity and belonging or lack thereof.
Rumpus: What you’re talking about is really crystallized in that touching scene between Goyo and his son in the hospital. There’s something so tender and tragic that is never resolved because his son disappears.
García: He disappears in New Jersey. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle. People vanish in Jersey.
I think I was trying to work out some family issues—not work it out therapeutically, but trying to understand. I think there’s one point—if I’m remembering correctly—I think they are in the car driving up and the great dane is barking cantankerous in the back seat and Goyito puts his cantankerous feet on the dashboard and he starts talking about his personal life. There was a moment in that scene when you get a sense that the dad is saying, “I love you. You are my son. I will never understand you.” There is this real impenetrability, just a basic incomprehension, one human to another. Even though the human is your own flesh and blood. I think that’s all too common and not just in the Cuban context—especially children of immigrants, children of exiled. We grow up here and we are being raised by people that feel literally from another planet, another culture, another ethos, another everything that in so many ways contrast what we are navigating in this culture. My sister and I joked a lot that we were raised by wolves. We had no idea. We look at each other, we know we are related, but other than that we have nothing in common. Nothing and everything, in a strange way. I think I was trying to get at that moment of yes we are family but we may never see eye-to-eye on anything or have any deep understanding of the other.
Rumpus: In the novel, El Comandante is visited by a spirit, or the devil, Vazquez.
García: I can tell you where that came from. The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov. The devil comes to Moscow and it’s 1930s, radically modern, a funny and outrageous book. I happened to be reading it and I thought, I’m going to have the devil come to Havana. I’m going to throw him in there. That’s how it happened.
Rumpus: I read somewhere that you began this novel writing in longhand. Can you talk about that and your process?
García: I wrote the whole book in longhand. This is the first time I’ve ever done that. I’m thinking in retrospect, it slowed everything down and it felt right writing these octogenarians. I’ve been writing longhand ever since. Ergonomically, there’s something freeing about longhand. It’s very liberating. It slows the process down. I felt it was necessary for these two characters and now it’s become a necessary and serene way to write for myself.
Rumpus: When did you decide to become a writer?
García: Very early on, I got a sense of the power of the word. I had my own diaries and my mother was always reading my diaries. I would get in trouble. I even hid them in the lining of my coat. It was a cat-and-mouse game. I had a heady power.
Rumpus: What are you working on next?
García: I’m writing a book that’s set in Berlin. It’s just a bunch of different voices. Tall tales, chronicles, German lit and history. It’s still in the early stages. Began the writing over the summer. It’s Cubans in the Berlin. We are an international bunch.
Featured image of Cristina García © by Isabelle Selby.