An Interview with Joao Cerqueira
Today I interview Joao Cerqueira, the Portuguese writer who wrote The Tragedy of Fidel Castro. We discuss God, Communism, and art.
Why write a novel about Fidel Castro?
I have a special interest in this complex historical figure. He led a revolution, defied America for decades and almost started a nuclear war. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the Soviet Union no longer exists and China has become capitalist – but nothing seems to overturn Castro. The CIA tried to poison him, to shoot him, hired the Mafia to kill him and nothing works. He is old and sick, he can’t do seven-hour speeches anymore, but he is still El Comandante – he is still in charge. So, I have been to Cuba three times and I spoke with a lot of people. The scene in the book featuring demonstrations against the regime and throwing stones was told to me by Havana citizens who were there. They also told me the story of the execution of one of the nation’s heroes, General Arnaldo Ochoa (he is the inspiration for the character Camilo Ochoa, who owes his first name to Camilo Cienfuegos). In a way, the idea for writing a novel about El Comandante began at this point. Besides, how many novels are there about Fidel Castro?
What were the reasons for how you represented God, Christ, and Fátima?
As most Portuguese, I had a traditional Catholic education. I was christened, I went to catechism classes, I was confirmed and I went to mass (was obliged to go) until the age of fourteen. So, from a young age religion has played an important role in my cultural development. At the same time, I have always been intrigued by the story of the Miracle of Fatima: the Virgin Mother and the angels descend from the heavens and reveal three secrets to three shepherd children – the description of hell, the end of communism and a third secret, which for a long time was believed to be the end of the world. In addition the Holy Virgin warned them that the sun would move on the 13th of October, 1917 and thousands of people traveled to Fátima and swore that they really did see it move. Could there be anything more extraordinary than this? And, to make the case all the more interesting, during the 80s theories and books appeared claiming that there had been an extraterrestrial intervention in Fátima. The Virgin Mary and the angels were beings from another planet. My imagination had all it needed to create a story featuring these characters. Then, as there was a prediction about the end of communism, the connection between the sun miracle and Fidel Castro became – in terms of literature – credible.
How does your background in Art History inform your writing? Be it fiction, editing an anthology, or writing about the Spanish Civil War.
I started The Tragedy of Fidel Castro when I was doing my masters, while my adviser was marking my thesis. When I have a good idea, I immediately begin writing it. What followed was a kind of osmosis: the perfecting of my writing style so important to the success of my thesis helped to improve the novel and I even ended up putting some of the themes, such as Vernacular Architecture and Modernism, into the story. The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, however strange this may seem, owes much to the thesis on The holiday home of the Municipality of Caminha. On the other hand, knowledge of the Spanish Civil War – the conflict between the republicans and the nationalists – may have inspired the scene in the novel in which the inhabitants of a village divide their loyalties between the Padristas (pro-Castro) and the Putistas (against Castro), and which ends in a duel between a padre and a prostitute.
Can you tell us about the interrelationships and/or friction between Spanish- and Portuguese-language cultures within the Latin American world?
The major friction lies with the Portuguese language itself. The Portuguese government has created an Orthographic Agreement to standardize the Portuguese language. Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cabo Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Timor have signed the agreement, which should establish a single way of writing Portuguese. But, as always happens when you try to change reality from the confines of a government department, the result has been a disaster. The majority of Portuguese people refuse to change the way of writing they learned at school, Angola withdrew from the agreement, and in Brazil nobody seems interested in changing the way they write. So, at the moment there are three ways of writing Portuguese: the old way, the agreement way and the Brazilian way. Fidel Castro centralized everything in Cuba – from the economy to culture – but he never dared to give orders when it came to language. With this problem created, Portuguese culture’s diffusion into Latin America will prove even more difficult.
With the recent resurgence in popularity of Spanish-language literature, most notable in the hype surrounding the late Roberto Bolaño, where is an accessible point of entry for readers new to Portuguese-language literature?
As a Portuguese person my opinion is hardly impartial. This said, I believe that Saramago and Lobo Antunes were the greatest writers of the last twenty years – for Harold Bloom, Saramago was unrivaled among living writers, and he made similar praise of Lobo Antunes. Bolaño, when compared to them, is a lesser writer. With relation to new authors, I would advise readers from other countries to consider Mário de Carvalho’s novel A God Strolling In The Cool Of The Evening – a story about the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, where the governor of a Roman town is forced to choose between his conscience and the laws he swore he would defend. The leading novels about Rome are Memoirs of Hadrian, by Margarite Yourcenar and I, Claudius by Robert Graves – in my opinion, the novel by Mário de Carvalho is better than both. Another writer who is creating something new in Portuguese literature is Afonso Cruz – http://afonso-cruz.blogspot.pt/.
Can fables have political impact?
Aesop and La Fontaine used the fable to pass on messages about ethics and morals to improve society. But it was Orwell who used the fable solely with a political purpose. Animal Farm not only portrays Soviet totalitarianism, but also reveals the reason for the impossibility of this succeeding: human nature does not comply with Communism. Man – personified by the mare Mollie, who refuses to stop wearing necklaces – prefers the pleasures of consumerism, or the satisfaction of her own interests, to the revolution and classless society. Animal Farm did not overthrow the soviet empire, but it must have opened millions of readers’ eyes. And the proof that this fable had a great political impact can be seen in the trouble Orwell had to deal with when he tried to publish the book. Everyone who refused his book understood that it was a much more dangerous weapon than any missile.
As it doesn’t feature any animals, I believe that my novel is not a fable but rather a parable – the message of which is the defense of freedom of thought (religious or political). For these same reasons, the book has not pleased everyone: a Chinese literary agent told me it would be impossible to publish it in China; a Christian Fiction agent replied only with: “God bless you Mr. Cerqueira’’, and in a far left blog it was considered “an irritating read”. I suppose that Cuba’s leaders are unlikely to appreciate it either. I would like however for it to be published in Cuba one day and to be read by many readers, because they will know better than anyone if my portrait of their reality is a faithful one.
Is the current crisis within the Catholic Church (including the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI) akin to the political crisis Communism suffered that hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union?
In the novel I have Castro writing this about the Catholic Church: “It has centuries of accumulated knowledge, a complex organization, and an unrivalled ability to survive and adapt to every historical period and regime. The Church is one of the most fascinating and accomplished of human creations but also one of the most dangerous.’’ Indeed, the Church faces big problems – most of them self inflicted – but its size and importance are far too big to allow it to collapse like the Soviet Union. But, there is also another difference: Roman Catholics are not forced to believe and pray; they obey the Pope because they want to. Niall Ferguson, in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, points out that Christianity – Protestants and Catholics – have played a very important role in our history. Even those who don’t believe they are influenced by Jesus’ teachings. After all, he was the first to say that all men are equal – this political statement is the basis of all western societies. One day communism will leave Cuba, but the Church will remain.
Who are some of your favorite writers, poets, and artists?
My favorite writers are: Fialho de Almeida , José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, Mário Cláudio, Mário de Carvalho, Sérgio Sant’Anna, Marcel Proust, Pär Largerkvist, Kafka, George Orwell, Mikhail Bulgakov, Margarite Yourcenar, Italo Calvino, Amin Malouf, W. G. Sebald, Enrique Vila-Matas, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, Jorge Amado and Erasmus (In Praise of Folly).
My favorite poets: Luis de Camões, Fernando Pessoa and Garcia Lorca.
My favorite artists: the old Egyptian painters, Giotto, Botticelli, Bosch, El Greco, Bronzino, Velasquez, Goya, Turner, Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Amadeo Sousa-Cardoso, Klimt, Munch, Rousseau, Kirchner, Picasso, Bonnard, Hooper, De Kooning, Rothko, Basquiat, Paula Rego, José de Guimarães.
Let me also say that I think that great cooks should be considered great artists too.