Translation Tuesday: The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, by João Cerqueira
A series dedicated to literature in translation whether classic or contemporary.
Originally published as A tragédia de Fidel Castro (2008)
Translated from the Portuguese by Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay
River Grove Books
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira can be read as alternate history, political fable, or dark comedy. The novel finds JFK and Castro in a fatal battle. Beset by demonstrations and riots, Castro must find a way to prevent his ouster. But this is not your usual political thriller, although it is populated by spies, conniving advisers, and renegade priests. The novel is also about the limitations of faith in the modern world and the mutual shortcomings of the two dominant socioeconomic systems of the Cold War.
After an initial prologue in Heaven, the novel begins at a muddy fairground where JFK has come to exchange goods with the Cuban government. He gets quality Cuban cigars and Castro gets bourbon. Beneath all the bluster and rhetorical bombast of the two leaders, Cerqueira reveals the humanity beyond the politics. In the end, these are two men who appreciate the finer things, not because cigars and bourbon are key indicators of capitalist decadence or Cuban Communist hypocrisy, but because of the inherent human desire for pleasure.
Backing up to the prologue in Heaven, we meet God as he gets interrupted by Fátima.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” exclaimed God in exasperation.
The Fátima in the novel refers to Lúcia, the last surviving sibling from Fátima, Portugal, who witnessed a series of miracles in 1917. These miracles included “extraordinary solar activity” and that “Russia would be converted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Communism would soon come to an end.”
Tragedy follows two parallel tracks. On the temporal plane, we see the rivalry between JFK and Fidel Castro, each castigating the other’s socioeconomic system. Anyone even slightly awake since 2009 knows that unfettered capitalism has a few weak spots. Anyone with a decent memory of events prior to the 1990s realizes that Communism was far from a pro-worker utopia. In the heavenly sphere, God attempts to persuade Christ to return to earth to stop the imminent battle between Castro and JFK. Unlike other conflicts, the Cold War involved thermonuclear missiles. The end result wouldn’t mean one side would be victorious, but could very well result in human extinction.
Amidst the political wrangling and theological struggle, Cerqueira fills the novel with humor. There is a wrestling match between a priest and a prostitute, each representing a political faction as Cuba descends into chaos. Castro journeys deep into the jungle to come to terms with his military plans and collapsing popular support, only to be admitted into an insane asylum as someone who thinks he’s Fidel Castro.
When Christ and Fátima meet and journey towards the final battle between the opposing forces, both discuss what can be done to get humanity’s attention. Unlike earlier eras, humanity wouldn’t be easily swayed with miracles. Science, society, and morality have all changed drastically. Their discussions about faith and morality are introspective and melancholy without being heavy-handed. There’s enough irony and dark humor in the book to forestall any conclusion that Cerqueira is a sanctimonious scold.
Tragedy is a funny strange little book. There are some historical inconsistencies that occasionally trip up the book, but once understood as a farcical political fable, the readers can let them slide. Except for those minor things, the book possesses a lean beauty and a humane perspective, Fellini-esque in its carnival of excess.