I have a postcard sent to me from Cuba with a photograph of a street on it. In the foreground, there’s a partial view of a red car with a white roof. The car is probably from the 1950s—it has little chrome tailfins and a curved body—though it’s hard to tell. In the background, there’s a beige wall with a spray-painted portrait of Che Guevara. It’s the iconic one everyone knows: Che wears a beret with a star in the center, his long, shaggy hair frames his face, and he’s looking up and off to the left, as though he sees hope in the future. But this version has more than the usual personality and attitude. The points of the star in the beret have been extended, making it seem to shine, and Che’s face is a spectrum of yellow, green, and blue.
The iconic Che, the old red car: taken together, they capture a certain image of Cuba. On the one hand, there’s the idealism of the revolution and its fallen hero; on the other, the hard material fact of daily life, imbued with a touch of romanticism. But is that really accurate? Canek Sánchez Guevara’s short novel 33 Revolutions offers a compelling vision of a different Cuba, one in which idealism has been reduced to empty sloganeering and there’s little romance. Whether or not it’s an accurate portrait of Cuba, it’s a powerful story of a man pushed to the edge not by a single profound injustice but simply by the accumulation of despair.
The protagonist is an unnamed black Cuban who works for a government ministry. He spends his time at work “checking and stamping papers, signing memos, writing reports, making copies, putting up with the manager, and not much more.” When he’s off work, he wanders the streets, takes photographs, dallies with a Russian woman who lives in his apartment building, and drinks rum—“Rum is the hope of the people,” he thinks. On one of his walks, the protagonist comes across a group of people building a raft on a beach. He watches them as they set out to sea on their shaky contraption. “Nonstop to the USA,” one of the would-be sailors says, while spectators cheer them on. The protagonist is certain they won’t make it, but whatever their fate, watching them leave stokes the flames of a long-burning resentment in him. He begins calling in sick to work, and uses his free time to take photographs. And when he’s required to return for an important meeting, he refuses to comply with what he’s asked to do.
It’s a moving moment, and one the novel effectively builds to. Guevara, who died in 2015, was the grandson of Che Guevara. He left Cuba for Mexico in 1996 and became a journalist. But Cuba remained important to him, and he was a critic of Fidel Castro’s regime. In 33 Revolutions, however, Guevara’s pen is aimed not at Castro, but at the lived reality of Cubans. He creates a Cuba that’s gritty and hard and oppressive. His protagonist struggles. People suffer—the same people the revolution was supposed to serve, who have now become victims of its monotony.
This monotony the revolution has brought about is a principal target of the book. Playing off the multiple meanings of “revolution,” Guevara uses the image of a spinning record to structure the story. Thirty-three short chapters document moments in the protagonist’s life, both small and large, that lead him toward an abandonment of the state’s ideology—his own revolutions. Within these chapters, turntables and records become metaphors for a dull, oppressive repetition that lulls people into complacency.
But music, especially live music, is also liberating. The protagonist, after going to the symphony to hear a program of Roldán and Brouwer, discovers that “For the first time he was able to dream while music played.” For him it is a profound revelation—a revolution:
suddenly he knew that he had encountered the music he’d been missing. Over time, he’s managed to put together a modest but well-organized collection of avant-garde, serial, aleatoric, mathematical, modernist, and minimalist music, and every now and again he wonders what he’s done to deserve this—to have tastes so alien to the tropics and yet live here…
At times, Guevara stretches the metaphor of a spinning record a little thin, as though he’s trying to use it to describe everything: the country, the people, the protagonist’s experiences. Even so, I found it effective. It describes a system that keeps revolving without getting anywhere, a system that, with its repetitions, grinds people down into subservience.
The Cuba that emerges in Guevara’s novel is one beset by problems, some more familiar than others. The state controls the media, and the official version of events often looks very different than the reality. Food is scarce, but the protagonist has access to a diplomatic store, thanks to his relationship with the Russian woman who lives in his building and controls its black market. And, in a grim moment, the protagonist is stopped by the police because he’s black. They let him go after he shows them his identification cards, but not before telling him that “A black man running in the dark is always suspicious.” The racism sparks another revolution for him:
The police have snatched away his dream and something he wouldn’t call pride, let alone dignity, but which is doubtless important. […] On the balcony, in his shorts, bare-chested, he thinks there isn’t one iota of greatness in this, and he makes a gesture that tries to take in the whole city, maybe the whole country. But he’s always been immersed in the legend, in all the organizations, speeches, marches, delegations, and commitments. Always with his head held high.
Guevara, like Orwell in 1984, seems to dislike authoritarianism and jingoism. But 1984 is a story of attempted subversion; there’s nowhere else to go. In 33 Revolutions, there is at least the hope of escape. The USA—an unknown quantity, and perhaps as much of a fiction as Cuba—isn’t far, just a short, dangerous trip across choppy waters. There’s hope in that.