A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
But they say that Che had Trotskyist sympathies. Did you see this at that point?
No, no. Let me tell you who Che really was. Like I say, Che already had a political education. Naturally he had read a number of books about the theories of Marx, Engels and Lenin. He was a Marxist. I never heard him speak of Trotsky. He defended Marx, defended Lenin and criticised Stalin. Well, in Stalin he was then critical of the cult of personality, of his mistakes; but I never really heard him speak of Trotsky. He was a Leninist and, in some way, he even recognised certain merits in Stalin. I mean industrialisation and other such things.
In my heart of hearts I was more critical of Stalin for some of his mistakes. In my view, he was the one responsible for the country being invaded by Hitler’s powerful war machine in 1941 without the Soviet forces receiving fighting instructions. Moreover, Stalin made some terrible mistakes. Everyone knows of his abuse of power and other arbitrary actions. But he had merits too. The industrialisation of the USSR and the transferral and development of the arms industry in Siberia were decisive factors in that worldwide fight against Nazism.
- Extract from Chapter 7, “Che Guevara”, my own translation
Another day, another departure for the increasingly misnamed Russian Series (despite the rather apposite citation above, quoted here to show a little of Castro’s own take on the Soviet question). Last week’s soapbox raised the difficult question of thinking about Che Guevara. Today I want to focus on interrogating the living rather than the dead; or rather, encouraging VL’s readers to do so. The book under consideration is Ignacio Ramonet’s Fidel Castro: Biografía a dos voces, the sum of 100 hours of interviews with the former Cuban head of state (published in English as My Life). I bought this book only recently and am currently in the process of reading it; I began with the intention of simply reading start to finish and instead find myself hopping from theme to theme, looking for a reference on this, wondering what Fidel says about that. I suspect that this is by far the most interesting way to go about reading a book like this, and arguably the most useful (at least for me). In this introductory article, I would like to explore just where the interest of this book lies; and why, in my eyes at least, it is so important.
Unlike Che Guevara, Fidel Castro has been a living, breathing, fighting presence in world politics for decades. January 1, 2009, will be the fiftieth anniversary of the day Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic. January 8 will mark the day Castro entered the city of Havana in triumph and, that same day, took the title of Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The following month he took office as Prime Minister; he became First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in 1965; and in 1976, he was President. He retired from office only in February of 2008.
But for all his undeniably solid nature and for all his (regrettable to some) persistence in remaining alive and voluble for all these years, Fidel leads a weird, contradictory second life in the mythology surrounding the Cuban Revolution. Sometimes, he appears as a terrible, fire-breathing ogre; sometimes as the white knight who led the people of Cuba to freedom. Sometimes, he’s the irritable downstairs neighbour who thumps on the ceiling with his stick whenever the kids make too much noise. Sometimes, he is simply the repository for all the painful, difficult, uneasy things people have to deal with when they consider Cuba, its Revolution and its state; often serving as a black and bloody counterpart to saintly, dead Che.
In the context of such wild imaginings, Ramonet’s book is a reassuringly weighty thing. Literally weighty: it runs to 760 pages in the 2007 updated edition. But its substance is not just in its potential uses as a doorstop/booster seat/improvised weapon. Prefaced with a short, elegant introductory chapter by Ramonet and with extensive notes, a bibliography and a comprehensive timeline at the end, the interviews with Castro form the bulk of this book. Reviewed and edited by Castro himself – who, we are told, worked obsessively on them while hospitalised in 2006 – and divided into short thematic chapters, the interviews roughly follow the chronology of el Jefe’s life, beginning with his childhood and ranging through a vast array of themes to end with a thoughtful, difficult chapter on Cuba After Castro. Six hours of these interviews, filmed in 2003 by Ramonet’s son Axel, have also been released on DVD (often sold together with the book).
The clear, well-presented structure of this book constitutes a major strength in my eyes, as does Ramonet’s unobtrusive interviewing style. Ramonet is open about his basic sympathy and respect for Castro (and it is hard to imagine that an uninterested or hostile party would go to the lengths of spending a hundred hours interviewing the man). But once admitted, he seems to set his sympathies firmly to one side; his interrogation (in the best sense of the word) of Castro is extremely thorough. His questions are generally short and well-placed; while not leading in the sense that they imply no value judgment or overt agreement/disagreement, they very often bring up prickly or contentious subjects. Ramonet seems to excel at asking the questions everyone would like to ask of Castro, subtly but persistently bringing his interlocutor back to the subject in hand when he – rather inevitably – departs on a tangent.
As a result, what the reader is presented with is essentially a Castro memoir, structured and guided by the parameters of an exhaustive interview. As a historical and political document – and I believe that this is a document of great value – this obviously does not provide us with a reliable account of the many events it covers. What it does give us is a chance to engage critically with the story as told by Fidel. And for anyone who wants to understand something of the man and the leader – and his perspective on the time and place to which he belongs – this opportunity is invaluable.
In the next part of this review – to come when the Russian series returns in 2009 – we’ll be interrogating Castro ourselves, with a particular focus on his language and narrative style. In the meantime, have a very happy holiday season!
Fidel Castro: Biografía a dos voces, Debate, ISBN: 978-0307376534
Published in English as Fidel Castro: My Life (trans. Andrew Hurley), Penguin, 978-0141026268