Roland Merullo. Fidel's Last Days. NY: Random House, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1-4159-6120-9 (1-4159-6120-4)
Imagine Fidel Castro lying on his death bed, holding onto life’s last breath with a stubbornness that infuriates those enemies who fervently wish Castro dead at the hands of an assassin, not the respite of natural causes. “Oye, pendejo,” Fidel might think--were he a bit of a Chicano--“if you want me killed, write a pinche novel, ‘cause it ain’t happening any other way.” Which is what Roland Merullo has done. Write a novel, Fidel’s Last Days.
Fidel’s Last Days plays intrigue against intrigue. A Miami-based Cubano organization, fabulously wealthy and clandestinely professional, will infiltrate an agent, Carolina, onto the island. She will deliver a weapon to kill Fidel. There’s a traitor in The Orchid, but he’s known to its top men. Cynically feeding misinformation and partial information back to Cuba's security directorate puts Carolina and other agents at risk, sacrificial lambs to the cold-blooded goals of “Project Havana”. The top henchasshole is Carolina’s beloved tio, but ni modo on that. His plan heaps danger upon risk, depending on precise timing and movement, something’s bound to go wrong. Poor Carolina. There’s her desperate escape, but into Olochon’s cruel hands, just as Carlos himself falls into the delighted Olochon’s grasp.
Merullo’s writing ethos speaks with the most virulently anti-Castro, anti-Cuba voice you will read, whether from non-Cubano writers or Cubana Cubano novelists. For the former, Martin Cruz Smith, Havana Bay, or Daniel Chavarria, Tango For a Torturer and Adios Muchachos, Cuba provides local color, the background that frames everyday struggles to eat, get laid, pull off a crime. Cuba-origin writers like Achy Obejas, Ruins, Roberto Arellano, Havana Lunar, Leonardo Padura, Havana Gold and Adios Hemingway, Jose LaTour, Comrades in Miami, sharpen their axes with varying degrees of edginess sans obsession. In these, Fidel’s rotten presence looms at the edge of teenage prostitution, slow starvation, shortages of everything except unrelenting woeful suffering. Except for Jesus Diaz, The Initials of the Earth, with its sympathetic meeting with Fidel in a sugar mill. Across most novels, Cuba’s good and noble gente endure their suffering or find a way to get out, even if floating off for Florida in an inner tube, shark bait.
Not that shortages, economic folly, latent racism, repression, and political opportunism are not facts of Cuban society. Such flaws are inescapable caca heaped on the island, thanks to the US blockade. But some novelists use these conditions as material to grow a plot; for Merullo, these are the plot. For example, Achy Obejas’ character makes pragmatic advantage of regularly collapsing apartment houses; finding value in ruin, he scavenges valuable salvage and converts it to dollars. Merullo’s character sees these as part of a litany of metaphors that describe the rotten heart of Carlos' homeland, thus justification for an elaborate assassination plot and coup d’etat. When life gives you lemons, kill Fidel.
Not that Merullo hides his bloodlust motive in crafting a generally successful, suspenseful plot. And, perhaps, Merullo is not a blind hater, but merely a literary opportunist, an outsider much like Martin Cruz Smith, informed by locals with their own axes a-grinding. I’d love to learn who steered Merullo in the direction he leads the reader. Jose LaTour advised Smith, creating a beautiful novel with a flavor of authenticity, then wrote a parallel novel.
As in Havana Lunar, Fidel’s Last Days occur against a background of Cuban medicine. This isn’t the healing science of a recent rabble-rousing film but the medicine of shortage. Havana Lunar features a medical clinic lacking even aspirin to treat sick children, owing to the clinic’s location in a politically unreliable neighborhood where folks don’t rat out each other’s political shortcomings. Merullo is not as hard on his poor barrio clinics, such as Elena’s: “Although the shelves were not stocked with more than a week’s supply of the essentials—zylocaine, penicillin, aspirin, hydrogen peroxide—the nurses called on the patients in fair order, and, it seemed to Carlos, treated them capably, efficiently.”
Carlos happens to be Cuba’s Minister of Health, Castro’s personal physician, and a crony of all the good old boys. Carlos had been with el Comandante from near the beginning. But Carlos is not immune from political suspicion. Castro’s longer-tenured comrade, the quintessentially evil Olochon, heads D-7, internal security. Olochon relishes his job and his nickname, The Dentist, earned from his technique of pulling teeth with a “plumber’s wrench.” Ferreting out traitors to the state occupies Olochon’s days and nights, except when he’s got some traitor hanging in a cell waiting, wishing, for a coup de grace. At one point, Carlos expresses his belief to Fidel that Olochon goes too far sometimes. Fidel thinks Olochon is doing a fine job.
Olochon’s suspicious mien reflects, if not causes, the disheartening mistrust and political snitching that characterizes personal relationships witnessed in other novels, too. Carlos and Elena matter deeply to one another, yet Carlos fears letting her in on his role in the plot. “To protect her, he told himself. To protect her, and others. But, in fact, he was not truly sure of Elena’s political leanings. At times, quietly, she voiced criticisms—never of Fidel personally, but of the way things were done. And then, other times, he’d see her watching a television program that was pure propaganda, and there would be tears in her eyes for the great experiment that was Cuba.” For her part, Elena recognizes if Carlos is taken, Olochon will come for Elena and her family simply owing to her Carlos conecta. The limits of Cuban love begin at the ligature around one's throat.
Merullo wants readers to recognize a difference between Carlos’ contemporaries and everyday, less jaded Cubanos, like Elena. Olochon provides a focal point: “his anger had been like an ugly brother to Fidel’s, his ego like a twisted reflection of a twisted reflection. … there were those who claimed Batista had fled the country, not because of Castro or the sentiments of the Cuban people, but because of the boy who enjoyed killing. Olochon….the name was a sharp hot spike through the groin
Carlos’ view of Elena and her adult son, illustrates the depth of Olochon’s type of suspicion and the vast gap between lost potential and present decay. “Julio and his mother were real revolutionaries, real communists. They were, Carlos thought, what he had been at the beginning.” Earlier in the novel, a similar feeling intrudes on the hate fest for all things Castro, and for oneself. “The Revolution had been built on a concern for the pain of others. In the beginning the revolutionaries had killed, of course—without that killing they would still be slaves—but always in the name of a glorious future. Now, however, it seemed to him more and more that they killed in the name of a mediocre present, a status quo that kept so many Cubans wanting food, while a few, like him and Olochon, lived well. They had become the men they had once cursed.”
This conflict of past and present sets off a logic grown from Merullo’s depiction of Castro as an out of touch blowhard. Castro sits in the cabinet meeting and drones on and on, but only after each of the cabinet ministers have droned their glowing reports of fabricated progress, each minister quietly admiring the lying ability of a compañero. Does Fidel have to go, or should the assassin aim at Olochon’s evil? Ridding Cuba of el Comandante will destabilize the island, but killing Olochon will remove an evil blot on the island’s health. Fidel will die some day, but what if the director of D-7 ascends the throne?
It must have been a pleasure for Merullo to write Fidel’s death in the penultimate chapter. Without giving away the twisty ending from the final chapter, the Fidel-hater reader will re-read that paragraph with cascading frissons of glee. Ding dong and all that.
Sadly, a few small but glaring errors mar the otherwise involving suspense. There’s that matter of The Dentist’s yanking teeth one by one with a plumber’s wrench. I think not. A plier, a vise grip, a dental instrument of course, would do. But a plumber’s wrench is designed with one-way teeth that grasp a pipe across the circumference to exert counterclockwise force on a tube with ample clearance. Being somewhat of a handyman myself—I’m a regular carpintonto, in fact—I know my plumbing tools with an intimacy Merullo lacks.
Likewise, Merullo’s confusion of Cuban with Mexican comida. What happened to his local informant on this, quién sabe, but when Carlos takes Elena to dinner, they go to a restaurant whose fare illustrates not only run-of-the-mill privation but also an egregiously uninformed writer: “they turned down an alley, past a woman and small child begging and a man playing the Peruvian flute, then ducked into the large, noisy, popular Café Castro, where you could sometimes get a little chicken or fish with your beans and rice and tortillas”.
¡Hijole! That menu cries out for an editor or a fact-checker.
Artful News from Chicago
My studio building is having its annual Spring "OPEN STUDIO WALK" weekend on May 15-16, 2009. If you are in or near Chicago I hope you'll drop in and have a glass of wine and see some wonderful art. Art will be for sale!
More details and directions can be found on the Artists of Eastbank website - www.artistsoftheeastbank.com
J u d i t h e H e r n á n d e z
◘ Website: www.jhnartestudio.com
◘ Studio: 1200 West 35th Street, #35000, Chicago, IL 60609
Meso American Reminder
In Los Angeles, Cal State LA hosts the 2009 Conference on Mesoamerica. Continuity and Change in Mesoamerican History From the Pre-Classic to the Colonial Era. Click here for a PDF of this interesting event.
Lydia Considered and Re-Considered.
La Bloga enthused at the beauty, power, and pure drama of Lydia at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.
Denver's John Keubler has an interesting answer to the question of how Octavio Solis' masterful teatro experience changed from its Denver debut to its exceptional El Lay staging. Click here (then press Esc when the site demands an email password) to enjoy Keubler's take on this wondrous play, including an LA Times critic's accusation Lydia is like a telenovela. Wha? Among descriptions I would hope critics studiously avoid is equating fluffy stuff like telenovelas with so fine an example of Chicano belles-lettres.
Now the play has found its way west to Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where critical reception, perhaps because of all the hype, has been mixed. Los Angles Times theater critic Charles McNulty calls it “magical realism meets telenovela.”
I do not watch telenovelas, and I wonder how many telenovelas McNulty consumes along with a hot botana or two? For me, this sounds like beans rice and tortillas served at a Havana café, suspiciously uninformed. Ni modo. You'll enjoy Keubler's essay.
What's the word of the day? Catarro. May you not comprehend what this means, leastways, not as convincingly as I do right now. Damn. Here's trusting my twice daily botana of Ciprofloxacin and Tamiflu are doing the trick, this second Tuesday of May. A Tuesday like any day, except you are here. Be well, gente. See you next week.
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