The first appearance of El Comandante, the ersatz Fidel Castro in Cristina García's King of Cuba, finds the enfeebled dictator confined to lead his revolution from his bed.
"The tyrant shifted onto his left arm, aiming his scrawny buttocks at the Straits of Florida, and released a sputtering, malodorous stream of flatus," she writes. "'Take that, you fat-livered idiots,' he muttered, slumping against his padded headboard."
What follows is a series of drastically increasing humiliations that García afflicts upon her fictitious dictator, of which impotence and assassination attempts are among the most mild.
"I'm not good at controlling myself, so I let quite a bit rip," Garcia laughs. It's the sort of novel whose author an egotistical autocrat might not readily welcome back into his country.
"I won't know until I apply for a visa, I think," Garcia says. Even though she was a Guggenheim fellow, a National Book Award finalist andTime
's former Miami bureau chief, she is not planning to be allowed back into the country she left at 2 years old, at least not before Castro's death; she has heard through friends that a sort of "cultural ambassador for Cuba" read the novel "and felt it was very hard on El Comandante. It's not like some gauntlet has been thrown down, but I was told he felt a little disappointment and perhaps recognition."
King of Cuba is so effective in its transgression because of how funny and beautiful it is. Like García's other novels, it is in the thrall of poetry and toys with form, breaking out of traditional narrative to tell its story in restaurant menus, interviews and weather reports. Though much of the book focuses on the dictator and Goyo, an elderly Cuban exile living in Miami and plotting El Comandante's death, theirs are not the only voices heard, and arguably not even the most important.
García has returned to Cuba many times, "mainly in the 1990s and once in 1983. But my return to Cuba [in 2011] after a decade-long absence was absolutely crucial. And that had to do with the voices I heard all around me. Before that, it was a gigantic duel between Goyo and El Comandante."
The visit allowed García to pick up on "the music, the preoccupations, the slang: everything that was happening in Cuba up until that point. The voices just started coming to me. The first voice came to me in the Havana airport on the way back to Miami. Soon there were 140, 150 voices."
Though she ended up reducing the total number of voices, we still hear from the arborist who remembers street vendors frying "scummy mop threads" and selling them as steaks, others "melting Chinese condoms as 'cheese' for pizzas." A grammarian tells the reader in a footnote that "Resolver, to resolve, is Cuba's national verb. This could mean anything from 'resolving' a cake for a niece's quinceañera to 'resolving' the Revolution's over-reliance on imports." There's even a novelist, named only as "C.G." who tells a story of dodging cowboys and Russian tractors in a rental car lacking a gas gauge and speedometer.
Without these voices, García believes, the novel "would have been more of a stagnant exercise, retelling the official history of Cuba." They provide an important counterpoint to the well-known public conflict between the Cuban government and its dispersed people, as represented by Goyo and El Comandante.
"These other voices are saying, 'What about us?" That's where history is lived, that's who experiences the fallout from this more public discourse."
Her parents are of Goyo's generation and mindset.
"I grew up downwind from all that," García says. "They're rabidly right wing and I'm the opposite, getting more radical by the minute. I have a whole other side of the family that remained in Cuba by choice. I was very curious about it and ultimately went back to Cuba to find out more about this family that nobody talks to. What I saw was that there are all these complexities that get lost in the shouting."
When she worked as a journalist in Miami, it was the first time as an adult that García lived in a Cuban community. She found the experience "alienating" and not fitting with what she had come to think Cubans believed.
"They say that 30% of Cuban-Americans are registered Democrats," she says. "They get choked out of the conversation. [Cuban-American conservatism] really isn't as monolithic as those who purport to speak for us pretend that it is. In all my books, I try to traffic in that complexity, but with these two old guys, they are more entrenched. Which is why I turned to the Cuban Greek chorus."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Garcia is a great admirer of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński's vox populi documents of Haile Selassie and the last Shah of Iran's downfalls.
"I love those books and occasionally teach a course where I alternate between those two," she says. "He's a highly interesting journalist that novelists can borrow from."
In preparing to write King of Cuba, García also "reread all the great dictator novels" including Gabriel Garcia Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch and The General in His Labyrinth, as well as Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat. "Probably the best of them is El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias. There isn't a good translation but it's incredible, its depiction of the cultural asphyxiation of a country under a 20th century dictatorship. So it was like the dictator hit parade."
Still, she goes to great lengths to never mention El Comandante by his name, keeping his identity separate from Castro's, even if they are both bearded cigar smokers who had an erstwhile friend in Che Guevara.
"I just wanted to take more liberties with the man," she says. "I didn't want it to be a biography although i really did read everything during my Fidel immersion program. I wanted to reference actual events, real people and so on. But I really wanted to build him from the ground up, to show how he became this charismatic, monomaniacal, mesmerizing figure. There's also a lot that I make up completely. I wanted to own him for the purpose of the novel."
It's a similar tactic to the one she took in her previous novel, The Lady Matador's Hotel, which takes place in an unnamed Central American country struggling through a civil war.
"i didn't want to name Guatemala per se -- though that's what I had in mind -- in part because there are numerous countries and people to which the general situation can apply. People who know Guatemala would recognize it but El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras have all had these kinds of civil war, may of them products of US policy and oligarchs in the region.
"I didn't want to be beholden to a specific place or history. I do the same thing in Dreaming in Cuban. I don't want people to say that an intersection doesn't exist or they don't sell that kind of snow cone. I'm bending and reseeding the details."
García's next novel will be set in contemporary Berlin, inspired by the real stories of Cubans who went to Europe during Cuba's period of adventurism.
"Lots were sent to the old Eastern bloc, married and had children. I have a cousin I've never met named Vladimir," García says. "Where are those stories and who is telling them? I want to tell a portion of those stories."
Ultimately, facts become something new in García's hands; in bending and reseeding those details, she is able to access a deeper level of truth.
This puts her somewhat at odds with those who would factcheck a snow cone.
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"I don't really understand because I don't have that impulse myself," she says. "If an author seduces me -- maybe I'm just a literary whore -- I'm not particular if I believe the world. But maybe some people get so overwhelmed by the cascade of imagery that they cling to the smallest facts to get a toehold, to have a modicum of control instead of ceding it all to the author. But there's a free-floating feeling from that loss of control when you enter into a good book."
Cristina García's King of Cuba is in bookstores everywhere. She will be reading at Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, November 24 at 2:30 p.m. For more, visit CristinaGarciaNovelist.com or MiamiBookFair.com.