Monday, April 6, 2009

Critic-At-Large: Cuba and Carib

Steely Dan--"Third World Man (live)" (mp3)

It's funny how things line up sometimes. Now there is news that Obama will begin loosening travel restrictions and financial restrictions between the United States and Cuba. Nothing certain yet, but perhaps the beginning of the long-needed thaw. It was one of his campaign issues and he's stuck to it. The first step will allow Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and to send more money back to Cuba than had been previously allowed. The hope, at least among us liberals, is that this will lead to a broader softening of our foreign policy towards Cuba.

Though I've never traveled in the Caribbean at all, I've had a desire to go to Cuba for some time, as always, for the food, but also because I wanted to see what is supposed to be the best of the Hemingway houses. And, heck, it's only 90 miles from Key West. I could dust off my copy of The Old Man and the Sea, pop a couple of Dramamine, and hop on a high-speed ferry and wake up in Havana. Anyway, a dream for the future. The near future, I hope.

But it is funny how things line up sometimes. Last week, while I was in Florida and eating books like candy, I had brought a book along with me that I bought last summer and was just getting around to finishing--The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. When I arrived, I was about halfway through with it, and it took several days of library binging before I got back to it. The last book I read before I returned to it was a thriller, albeit a literary one. Fidel's Last Days deals with a contemporary, fictional plot to finally get rid of Castro once and for all. A thriller and a Pulitzer Prize winner wouldn't seem to have much in common, would they?

Fidel’s Last Days by Roland Merullo.

If you wanted to kill Castro, how would you do it? Who would you trust? Can you trust the Cuban-American community in Miami, or has it been infiltrated by Castro agents interested in ferreting out plots to eliminate Castro? These are kinds of questions a female ex-CIA agent in Miami and a doctor in Cuba, both of whom have been drawn into the plot, will have to answer. If you fail, you lose everything, and your family loses everything, and control becomes even tighter as a result. Imagine living in a country where, 50 years after the fact, the overthrow of the Batista government is still considered an ongoing revolution, and where to voice even the slightest doubt about that revolution is to face destruction, even though no aspect of your society functions properly. The layers of deceit are unfathomable; the challenge of getting close enough to the great man, who has understandably become quite paranoid, to administer a lethal anything is almost insurmountable. As is the dramatic irony of knowing that Castro is still alive.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

Like most great works, this one reduces to an unrevealing simplicity of plot: fat kid wants to get laid before he dies. Of course, that isn't the half of it, or even the fourth of it. The "fat kid," Oscar, is from the Dominican Republic, and to understand the depths of his bad luck, you have to grasp the last 60 years or more of life in the Domincan Republic. I can't speak for you, but I was stunned, in reading this book, to discover how little I know about the history of a country that is so close to us. The history itself is perhaps not all that surprising: for most of the 20th century, the Dominican Republic was dominated by a cruel, meglomaniacal dictator who had the tacit support of the United States. The extent to which this man and his desires and his police force's desires dominate even the smallest decision or utterance from the mouths of one of his citizens is incomprehensible to us in this country. But, as an example, one doctor's decision not to make his beautiful daughter available to "El Jefe" has dire consequences for a couple of generations.

The connections should be pretty obvious, but I'll make them anyway. The dominance of repressive, harsh governments in the Caribbean has disjointed life there. We don't begin to understand the extent of these repressions. Both of these books illuminate those extents; in fact, in both books you get quite graphic accounts, both fictional and historical, of boundless acts of torture and violence. But, really, the subject matter, as compelling as it is, is almost secondary to superb writing, especially in the case of Oscar Wao. As told by Oscar's sister and her sometimes-ne're-do-well boyfriend, the story becomes the intimate story of a few characters and the story of a family of immigrants and a country.

Both books engaged me fully and taught me a lot, but Oscar Wao is the Great American Novel, much of which doesn't take place in America. Highly recommended.

"Third World Man" comes from Steely Dan's Alive in America, available at Itunes.

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