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Reporting on Cuba

Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel by Lee Lockwood (Macmillan, $10)

Inconsolable Memories by Edmund Desnoes (New American Library; $4.50)

If only because we have had no reports from Cuba for a long time, Lee Lockwood’s book and Edmundo Desnoes’ novel are important. I am speaking of us Americans of course; Europeans go to Cuba and write about it; US-influenced Latin Americans less, but the visits of their leading writers to cultural conferences and their enthusiasm for the Cuban revolution make Havana the cultural capital of the Spanish-speaking world. Our own lack of communication is due in large part, during the last two years, to the Cubans’ indifference to what we think, so that applications for visas remain unanswered; but also, I suspect, to a reluctance on our part to admit that much past reporting has been wrong: the Cubans are not a Soviet satellite and they have not died of hunger or exposure.

It is unfair to make any novel play this news-gathering role, especially Desnoes’ which is a kind of interior monologue by a hero who is something of a displaced person, but it is a sign of its solid grounding in reality that Inconsolable Memories is also a good report on the Cuban scene. Lockwood’s book sets out to do just this and does not entirely succeed, yet it is in no way a failure: it is frequently lively and informative and its long interview with Fidel – the heart of the book – is of major importance, one which the Cubans themselves read with considerable interest when it appeared last January in the Mexican magazine Politica.

The cliché is true: art tells us more than journalism. Lee Lockwood is a photographer, and when he tells us about Cuba with his camera, he is at his best. His publishers have not reproduced his photographs well – often at first glance they are black masses and washed-out areas – but it is in them, not in the chapters of reportage, that his feeling for the landscape, the Cubans, and the Cuban revolution comes through. One longs to see the original prints, for a photographer who composes each shot so carefully and who so intelligently selects the image which will make the most telling subject could not be sloppy about the texture of his prints. Example: Fidel talking to prisoners on the Isle of Pines is not made the focal point of the scene, but a man who is talking to him with passion caught in a beam of light coming through the ceiling; around him, in shadows, the other prisoners watch in suspense, and Fidel listens contemplatively. Superb, yet one must peer for the drama that the minor figures lend, as at a Rembrandt, encrusted with varnish.

The reproductions do not cancel Lockwood’s artistry nor his visual reporting. Fidel walking across a field with his aides becomes the occasion for displaying not only their ease and naturalness in the countryside but also for capturing, at a distance, the beauty of the royal palm, an austere and graceful tree for which the Cubans have found many practical uses but which has haunted the imagination of its poets and ordinary people. A naked little boy walking proudly down a sidewalk, shoulders back and penis forward, is not just a joyous image of embryonic machismo; he is wearing shoes – the revolution’s contribution to this traditional image. Lockwood gives us crowds, posters, individual studies, Fidel in every possible mood; the cities, farms, country towns – most of Cuba is in the photographs.

Lockwood’s text consists mainly of excerpts from several interviews he got from Fidel in 1965. Although he'd met Fidel before, this time Lockwood’s doggedness won him a week on the Isle of Pines during which they spoke for hours at length. The typescripts were gone over by Fidel, and the whole thing was sent to Lockwood in a bound volume after he returned to New York. Lockwood tells us that only infrequently did changes made after the conversations alter the sense or tone of Fidel’s original responses; in such cases Lockwood retained the original. When part of the book was published in Playboy in January, the newspapers picked up only the section in which Fidel speaks about the October missile crisis; he said we agreed with the Soviet Union not to invade Cuba and that there were other secret clauses to the agreement which have yet to be revealed. The rest of the interview, to my knowledge, aroused none of the comment it deserved.

In one way or another Fidel touches on all the events of crucial importance from the beginning of the insurrection until 1965, and the interviews thus become an explanation of the revolution that we badly need. In explaining, for example, his development as a Marxist (sensible and sensitive and touched by a kind of self knowledge that no contemporary political leader can approximate), Fidel takes up the question of the role of the Cuban middle class and corrects the theory (that it was their revolution and Fidel betrayed it) which has gained so much acceptance in the United States.

Or, in discussing whether he is an absolute dictator, Fidel's relaxed attitude gives him the opportunity not only to expound Marxist theory (which he does well; that is, without the verbal shortcuts clear only to initiates) but to talk informatively about the development of the Communist Party and the institutionalization of political life to prevent absolutism. One could say that the Cuban leadership is concerned to build socialism in such a way that it not only builds in the obsolescence of the state but also the withering away of Fidel. Both goals are far off, though this year Fidel discussed the latter subject in one of his speeches. The time has come, he said, when he will not speak at every meeting and posters will not say, “Everyone To the Plaza de la Revolución With Fidel” but with Dorticos or Raul or Almeidas. With Lockwood, he talks about his own role, and speculates, as an example of how history creates leaders, about whether Raul could have carried on the task of leading the insurrection successfully if he (Fidel) had fallen as did so many others of the original band who invaded their own country to start the armed struggle.

It is this personal, unaffected way that Cubans, from Fidel down, have of talking about themselves and their revolution that has introduced such words as charm into the vocabulary of foreign observers; the English economist, Joan Robinson, began a rather serious article a couple of years ago on the economics of the Cuban revolution with the statement that it was “a darling revolution.” Creative writers are particularly susceptible to it, but the most hardnosed journalists succumb also; you can tell whether a writer on Cuban politics has visited the country by the absence or presence, no matter how obliquely, of this emotional response.

That Lockwood resists Fidel’s argument about leaders may be due not only to Lockwood’s appreciation of Fidel’s extraordinary personality but also, perhaps, to his lack of knowledge of the many men Cuba’s long revolutionary history developed. We know so little about them – somewhat vaguely about Jose Marti, then a vacuum, then Fidel – that names like Mella, Guiteras, Echeverria, Pais, each unique and loved, do not come to our minds, as they do to Cubans, during such a discussion. But to Cuba’s charm Lockwood has succumbed, as have so many others, and it must puzzle him that he likes the Cuban ambience. There is nothing in his ideological background to attract him to Cuba, yet the book exudes friendliness. Not that there is any real statement of support for the revolutionary road Cuba has taken, but he does ask for tolerance for the Cuban regime, an end to the blockade, and American understanding of Cuba’s independent position within the socialist camp. Good, decent proposals. One must not quarrel with them. The liberals’ feeling for fair play should become operative in our country, but they are curiously beside the point in talking about Cuba today.

I do not mean by this that everyone in Cuba would not be grateful for the assurance that we will not invade their country. That would be nice. It’s just that meanwhile back at the ranch every Cuban can see the US sheep eating up every unguarded pasture. Just as Fidel said to Lockwood that “the effect of the American blockade has been to require us to work harder and better,” so will any Cuban, no matter how remote his hometown, tell you what a blessed hardship it has been: they are the prouder for having survived and gotten over the economic hump, as Lockwood confirms. The time is almost here when American spare parts would present a problem to Cuban mechanics, not a solution.

In this singular lack of gratefulness for American liberal good will lies the clue to what the Cubans want for themselves and for us; it is a clue to their charm as well. They have had eight years of blockade and socialism – eight years of our malevolence and Soviet help – and the result is that they’re economically independent of us and politically independent of the Soviet Union. While their closest allies, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, have taken to Libermanism, the Cubans embark on projects and plans based on volunteer work and revolutionary enthusiasm that would drive a cost accountant mad. In 1960 observers used to say that such manifestations were of course the result of euphoria and soon they’d have to settle down to the humdrum problems of socialism; but eight years have gone by and they have been long and hard for the Cubans, and still the cities empty into the canefields at every harvest. Create the necessity and the solutions will follow, say the Cubans, and those who like to see a project worked out on paper beforehand are aghast. The method works, however, and if the enthusiastic participation of people in the work of the nation is an index of democracy, as the Cubans say, the method’s superiority to our own and the Soviet Union’s is undeniable.

But what do the Cubans want of us? That we should not invade them, of course. Yet if they were talking to us and not the administration, they would ask us to help the revolutionary movements of the world: in those western nations where revolutions are impossible they would like to see, for example, brigades of revolutionary youth go as volunteers to the different fronts. Lockwood thinks that help to the Latin American revolutionaries “may be more [a matter] of ideology than actuality” – a strange formulation but one gets the idea – and while his book was at the printer's several events – Che Guevara’s message, Fidel’s March 13 speech, the defense of Cubans who landed in Venezuela – have made Lockwood’s belief less than probable. Yet it is a virtue of his book that the interview with Fidel is a source for other than Lockwood’s conclusions and that he has known to ask the right questions.

Desnoes’ novel does not deserve to be given secondary consideration, but it is necessary to give some idea of the fervor of the Cuban atmosphere in order to place its hero – a necessity created by the publisher's jacket copy which makes him something of a Joseph K, “a man prey to solitary human anguish, and a social animal grievously wounded by being cut off from society.” He is also “a bourgeois who believes in the goals of the revolution but who is not able to ignore its harsh realities.” Jacket copy is jacket copy and it is nice of New American

Library to publish a Cuban novel, the first since Little, Brown did Alejo Carpentier's stunning Explosion in the Cathedral three years ago and advertised it as the work of a Haitian. But the jacket copy is worth noting because after the hustling motives are subtracted from it there does remain the fact that alienated man is the liberal hero par excellence, and to interpret Desnoes’ book in this way is not only beside the point but deprives it of its charm.

Desnoes has taken the cliché and stood it on its head: his is a witty, first-person narrative not of a grievously wounded social animal but of a sloth. The hero is one of those traveled, well-to-do Cubans who despises his class but who certainly has no belief in the revolution’s goals; if anything, it’s a damned bore. But he receives enough money from the government as monthly compensation for property which it confiscated to live comfortably, and he hasn’t followed his parents or his wife into exile. A nice touch of Desnoes’: the narrative medium is a rather self-conscious diary he keeps, one in which he deflates himself as well as his class but by which he also attempts to bloat himself into anguish. Desnoes does not let him.

The diary takes him through the period ending with the missile crisis; he has a couple of desultory affairs, one ending in a hilarious court case, and he comments on his former wife and his present situation. His disgust with his class gives him enough of the kind of double vision that Desnoes needs to make his own comments on the scene, and the hero’s rambles, both physical and intellectual, allow for very exact and choice social history. One of the funniest touches of the book is the narrator's loathing for Edmundo Desnoes, a friend with much his same social background, for having sold out to the revolution, since Desnoes is something of a pillar of its intellectual life. There’s an in joke in this too (Desnoes isn’t too happy with his first two novels which were socialist realism pure and simple; pure but perhaps not simple, because they were full of marvelous dialogue for which he's got a tuned ear) but the characterization of himself is Desnoes’ way of showing his narrator’s prejudices and incomprehension.

All this commentary is accomplished by a sustained tone which is the book’s intellectual core, and the climax of the story, the missile crisis which was for so many Cubans the ultimate test of their dedication to the revolution, bursts into a mixture of explicitness and oblique comment that is a real achievement. Afloat in Havana, without personal or social ties, the hero experiences the crisis alone, overhears conversations on the phone, just as Kennedy on the Miami radio and Fidel at home are spectral voices to him too. Yet what Desnoes selects of each leader’s speeches is a direct statement to the reader: Fidel’s is the declaration rejecting the Soviet-American agreement that a UN team go to Cuba to check that the missiles have been removed, a speech which Cubans celebrated jubilantly. “We are part of humanity and we run the necessary risks,” Fidel says, “yet we are not afraid. We must learn to live in our allotted times and with the dignity with which we know how to live.”

But Desnoes’ hero acts and feels just the opposite: that “it’s quite an expensive dignity.’ When the crisis is over, his panic is replaced by the desire “to preserve the clean and empty vision of the days of the crisis,” a version of the experience that separates him from his countrymen. Something of which the hero is obliquely aware, for he ends with the resolution, “Go beyond words,” a kind of fake, self-conscious mysticism perfectly in tune with everything we know of him – except that one now really believes him when he says he is finished.

The title of the original is “Memories of the Underdevelopment,” which is like saying that that time is past. True, every reader makes of or takes from a book what he wants, but a publisher ought to be on the writer's side – the American title Inconsolable Memories sounds like bad Scott Fitzgerald. Still, they’ve published Desnoes’ novel and it can speak for itself. Just as Lockwood’s conclusions acknowledge that revolutionary Cuba is here to stay, and srecommend that we take a look at it.

José Yglesias’ new book, The Goodbye Land, has recently been published by Pantheon.

This article originally ran in the July 8, 1967, issue of the magazine.