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History, Memoirs, Non-fiction

Waldo Frank’s Cuba, Prophetic Island was in many ways prophetic itself.  Written at the express invitation of the revolutionary government that had only recently established itself in Havana, the book was expected to be a portrait of Cuba—and a snapshot of the Revolution—similar to other books Frank had written about Latin America and Spain, books the “younger generation, now in command,” had read and admired.

 

The invitation, of course, would not have come if my past work had not revealed simpatia and what to them seemed comprehension of America Hispana.  But there was never the slightest inquiry as to what the book would say, what it would be.

 

These were heady optimistic days, and the Cuban leadership wanted their story told by someone whose sympathies were obviously with the Revolution.  Apparently they were able to pay for the job as well, with a two year grant.

 

That being said, the book is not dishonest.  In some ways it is, however—like so much that has to do with Cuba today—stuck in time.  But it is no less interesting or informative for that. 

 

On the contrary, Frank’s study of Cuba’s unique history among the Spanish colonies and the effects of the peculiarities of this history upon the formation of the character of the Cuban people provides enduring insights that you won’t find anywhere else.  This, and a sense of the widespread enthusiasm and hope among intelligent and informed observers of the time that with the Cuban Revolution a new world might be dawning.

 

Of course modern Cuba’s “birth”—as Frank regarded the Revolution—occurred at the worst of times, the height of the Cold War, when everything that happened everywhere was understood in terms of black (Soviet and Communist influence) and white (U.S. and Western Democratic ideals).  And Frank was quite simply wrong, or at least mistaken, on a number of issues.

 

Che Guevara, for example, was never a “psychiatrist, practicing psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires.”  Nor did he have “blonde disheveled hair.”  But these are petty, though difficult to understand, errors.  Most of what Waldo Frank says in Prophetic Island has stood up to the test of time.

 

And that’s only part of the reason this book makes for a fascinating and indispensable read for anyone interested in Cuba and its history.  The book is full of eloquent insights that are the product of an extremely well-read and deeply observant mind.

 

There are far too many of these sentences and paragraphs to quote, but Frank points out, for example, that “in economics and political mood, Cuba differed deeply from the greater colonies of Spain; and in its preponderantly European ethos, differed from the slave-run factories of the Caribbean.”

 

For an empire hungry for gold and silver Cuba was regarded as a failure.  There were no riches to be mined and no massively profitable latifundias on the island, as in Mexico and Peru, but instead smaller more modest hacendados concerned with the raising of cattle.  Although sugar cane production was labor intensive and Cuba imported more slaves than the United States, prior to independence from Spain in 1898 there was no monoculture as in the neighboring islands.  Even during the half century of U.S. domination—during which most of the land on the island and most of the major companies operating there were American owned—the tobacco industry, and particularly the rolling of the cigars for which Cuba remains famous, was operated with a largely non-slave craftsman-like labor force.

 

Cuba’s independence from Spain was late in coming, and during the sixty or seventy years that separated that event from those which resulted in the independence of most of the other former Spanish colonies in the Americas, a class of patriots—led by the words and foolish example of José Martí—emerged, thirsting after waiting far too long for the day when Cuba would finally be free of its former master.

 

I say foolish because Martí died in the first battle of the third war of independence, an engagement that ended in a draw.  His death was pointless, even absurd, and unnecessary. 

 

But as Frank points out “Cubans are bearers of the Hispanic culture, whose hero is Don Quixote, the knight who assails windmills and frees a gang of brutish convicts in the desperate effort to bring justice to the modern world.”  Martí’s death—like Castro’s storming of the Moncada barracks fifty-eight years later; and his return to Cuba with a small band of seasick fighters in December of 1956—was senseless but not futile:  for it inspired the men who came after him and helped enable them to embrace what Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life,” and overcome the odds that were stacked against them.

 

Cuba was weak—and somehow strong; Cuba was minor—and somehow major.

 

And with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution this statement, regarding the situation in the country in the 19th century, became prophetic.

 

But when Frank wrote his book he didn’t know this.  He knew only what he had learned of the history of Cuba, and what he saw firsthand of the Cubans.  What, he asks rhetorically, do the largely inexperienced leaders of the new Cuba have in common?

 

They are improvised agronomists, economists, bankers, buyers, soldiers, leaders of industry and of labor.  They are improvised statesmen and diplomats:  one might almost say they are improvised Cubans in their exalted meaning of the name.  Doubtless they make mistakes, for while they act they are still learning.  Time will judge their capacities of mind in their perilous undertaking.  What composes them together on so many and such complex levels is their sharing, at deep sources of energy unknown to the conventional office-holder, in the immediate work inspired by Cuba’s political, industrial and cultural incompleteness.  Wonderfully surviving the centuries of blood, of piracy (old and new), and of corruption, the Cubans emerge into history with an experiment—not of mere production, not of mere political independence:  an experiment in goodness.

 

Frank knew that these eager, highly idealistic young men and women might fail, just as Don Quixote failed.  But he felt—passionately—that they should be given a chance.

 

“This is what I mean by goodness,” he wrote.

 

These men have their share of weaknesses and lusts.  But preponderantly and devotedly they are in love with Cuba’s incompleteness, and with the task (they have all risked life for it) of Cuba’s self-fulfillment as a people.  Alas!  Since they are men and women, there is nothing necessarily permanent in this goodness  If the day comes when they love Cuba possessively for what it gives them, for what they have given it, and for what it is now, they will cease to be good leaders.



Photograph by Alberto Korda [Public domain]

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Memoirs

This, it seems, sums up the deployment experience: the near-constant fear for your life, and that of the others you come to cherish and love, followed by a homecoming that is almost equally traumatizing because while away, serving your country in some capacity that involves this often present threat of sudden death, you fear that you will never go home again and then find, upon returning to that country you have served and the home you left to go off to war, that it’s almost as if everything you did and suffered through over there doesn’t matter at all, since “the world goes on without us.”

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Literary Criticism, Memoirs

Choukri combines his forthright, unrepentant and keen observational talents with privileged first and second-hand access to three literary legends, all of whom responded to his curiosity and his questioning with sometimes welcome and revealing candor. And practically everything Choukri has to say about these writers—as well as himself—is worth noting.

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Memoirs

Many books are easily forgotten whereas some sear the impression of their words and the stories they relate deep into the folds of your memory.  That memory may be short or long after the reading of these latter books, but those books will never be forgotten.

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Memoirs, Non-fiction

If I owe being a writer to anyone it must be my mom.  She was the one who first fed my passion by passing onto me the books that she was reading with her book club.  I’ve always remembered myself as being twelve when I started enjoying reading.  But the three novels that I remember as my introduction to the world of fiction, independent of the required ‘classics’ we had to read at school, were all published in 1976.

 

I would soon discover Hemmingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner, in another household, and that would be it, I would be hooked for the rest of my life on literary fiction. 

 

First though I read and delighted in the world—large as an entire universe—of Leon Uris’s Trinity.  Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money was intriguing, complex for me then, and a bit racy.  And there was a third of these first novels that I remember whose title and author I’ve long forgotten, a story that involved both a pack of vicious wild dogs racing through a woods and an anal sex scene that left me baffled.

 

While my dad read everything Louis L’Amour wrote my mom’s tastes were influenced by the book clubs she belonged to throughout most of her adult life.  When I visited my parents in Atlanta—and every trip to either England or the United States would involve hours and hours and hours of my ransacking all the used bookstores I could find and shipping boxes full of the ‘treasures’ I found back to my home in the village of Villanueva de la Vera—my mom would inevitably ask me if I’d read a certain book and if she was through reading it she would give it to me.

 

So I got used to taking good books from her that I might or might not have heard about and had not yet read, like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha or Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke, books I might start reading while waiting at Hartsfield-Jackson to fly back to Spain, books that would allow for some of that tenuous link my mom sought to establish with her middle child, the one she probably felt she understood the least and yet in some ways might have identified with the most, books signed Jeanne Eriksen in that always enviable and elegant hand of hers.

 

When my dad died six weeks after they called me to tell me that he might have cancer my mom was devastated, lost, bewildered, terrified and overwhelmed.  They had been together ever since she was a freshman at K-State, when she was barely eighteen years old and her childhood came to an end.  They married within a year and nine months after they were married my brother was born. 

 

Soon after my dad’s death my mom started undergoing tests for dementia, which came on slow.  Ever since he died she had been distraught and distracted and forgetful.  So we moved her down to Florida where my sister—who didn’t have any kids—could look after her.  And then one day my mom found herself in downtown Palm Beach with no memory of having driven there.  Strangers were kind enough to lead her back to Jupiter, where she was living in the little condo my parents had bought in the nineties.  After that we called it Alzheimer’s.

 

For a while longer she kept reading the local newspaper.  When I would visit she would show me the weather page where she had circled both Boston—where I was living during the academic year—and Colorado Springs, where my brother lived after having moved back to the States from Spain.  Now, a decade after my dad died, my mom can’t read anything at all.

 

Before we moved her down to Florida I rented a U-Haul truck and filled it with things from the house in Atlanta that had, for me, immense sentimental value.  Most of these things—small sculptures, oil paintings, and other art objects—had originally been my Uncle Conrad’s, my dad’s younger brother.  It was precisely at the beginning of 1976, days after the new year had begun, when my uncle, an alcoholic gay man who had an unhealthy and ultimately destructive relationship with his dad, shot himself in the stomach two times while talking on the phone to his parents and bled to death in the house in St. Louis that looked—when we walked in and saw the plaster David standing there, with a wide-brimmed hat slung over his forehead—like a live-in museum.

 

None of these art objects were worth anything in monetary terms, but they had been around me when I was beginning the blind and faithless emergence into the artist that I would eventually become.  And along with these art objects I took from the house in Atlanta any and all books that my mom had read and left in boxes in the basement.  Among these books was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

 

I mention all of this because hers is the copy that I read, a copy highlighted in almost completely faded yellow and marked with a pen sometimes.  Since my mom bought many of the books she read secondhand I can’t be sure whether or not these markings are hers.  But I read this copy of Didion’s memoir of her own grief after her husband with whom she had spent almost her entire adult life suddenly died one evening from a heart attack believing that every time I came across something that was either highlighted or marked with a pen these underscored lines were lines that resonated with my mom after her husband, with whom she had lived for almost half a century, died so suddenly and unexpectedly.

 

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,

 

Didion writes. 

 

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

 

The emphasis is not mine, it was my mom’s.   And although these lines are poignant regardless of the circumstances of the person reading them, they are so much more poignant when they look like this:



Ever since I began to love books I have read with ulterior motives.  It is not enough—for any writer—to simply read for pleasure.  Long ago I became aware of how reading—anything at all!—always involves study, informed consideration and appreciation, of not only what is being ‘said’ but of how it is being said, and not only this but of everything, it seems, that the writer might be attempting to do with words, both consciously and unconsciously, while they wrote and after that endlessly revised the text that is now before me.

 

I mention this because I read The Year of Magical Thinking after two things happened:  after I finished a complete draft of my last novel, which is in some ways a fictional account of grieving; and after my mom was mistakenly diagnosed to be suffering from a strain of Staphylococcus after a weak dizzy spell led to her being hospitalized and the antibiotics she was given to combat this presumed infection nearly ended her life.

 

As far as I know Alzheimer’s doesn’t kill its victims, something else—like pneumonia or an allergic reaction to a powerful antibiotic—always does the job.  What happened to my mom right before I left for Spain in July of 2017 was a trial run.  She survived then, but this will happen again.  And again.  Until her life is over.

 

And that’s what The Year of Magical Thinking is really about, the finality of our lives.  And the fact that, sooner or later, everything has to end for us.  And about how painful dealing with the loss of the people we love—and need—most really is.  And how impossible it is to anticipate what dealing with the loss of such a loved one will be like.

 

In some ways my dad’s death ended my mom’s life.  Didion notes a study in an issue of Daedalus that reported that there are

 

some events to which people are slow or unable to adapt completely.

 

My mom presumably highlighted—in now faded yellow—the parallel finding,

 

that it takes the average widow many years after her spouse’s death to regain her former level of life satisfaction.  

 

Something Joan Didion might have done, but my mom never did.

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Graphic Novels, Memoirs, Non-fiction
Every art form has its peculiar advantages and relies upon the limits of its medium to generate a creative tension within the admirer of that particular art form. And this creative tension is heightened by the degree to which the viewer—or reader—participates in the realization of the creative product by becoming enthralled by it.

I have long envied the seductive power of cinema which unites, in such a potentially explosive and irresistible form, the mysterious allure of sound combined with image.

But the deceptively silent written word has its charms as well. And when combined with deceptively simple drawings—black and white comic book drawings—it’s as if the potential fluency and eloquence of the written word becomes unleashed, or untethered, or merely let go, like a helium balloon in the fist of a child who opens their hand just to see what will happen next.

The first, and so far only, graphic novel I have read provided me with a crash course in the merits of the form. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis tells an important—and in many ways both universal and essential—story the world needs to hear, particularly now, at this crucial juncture in the history of human civilization.

Born one decade before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and into a culture whose unsevered roots stretch back thousands of years Marjane Satrapi was, like so many Iranians, simultaneously blessed and cursed.

Persepolis tells the tale of that dubious privilege, of the trials of being a young and inquisitive and determined woman in a society ruled by Islamic fanatics (and here, in this context, the word ‘fanatics’ is le mot juste) determined to undermine the true strength of the nation by imposing on its courageous people a foreign ideology.

Since 1979 Iran has become not only a pariah state, as far as the West is concerned, but an even more complex puzzle for Western minds and governments. The irony of Donald Trump condemning Iran as a terrorist state in a speech delivered in Saudi Arabia sums up both our collective ignorance and our stubborn refusal to even look and see.

But that is precisely what Persepolis allows us to do, should we be willing. To look and see, often through the eyes of a child!

In an often charming and witty and mordant and self-abnegating autobiographical story—which happens to roughly coincide with the unfortunate history of the modern state of Iran—Satrapi tells a very complete story, that of any woman anywhere suffering at the hands of stupid men, that of a rich cultural heritage being plowed under and overlaid with the stinking asphalt of Islamic Law. Persepolis tells the story of one absurdity after another, of fundamental contradictions in both human nature and the society we fashion in an image of ourselves, and the long suffering of the Iranian people who have had to endure not only thirty-eight years of Islamic dictatorship but—at the very beginning of that sad and terrible period of institutionalized human rights abuses in the name of a higher Authority—the eight years of war with Iraq which, among all the many atrocities committed, left an estimated 50-100,000 Iranians dead as a consequence of exposure to chemical weapons alone.

These atrocities and this suffering provide the backdrop to Satrapi’s coming of age story, but they are not its only concern. What is remarkable about the graphic novel form—at least in this case—is the way comic book drawings combined with captions allow Satrapi to treat the blackest events with equally dark humor and the most humorous events with the agony and angst of teenage despair.

Persepolis is like an animated encyclopedia of the Iranian people. It is not merely the story of an alien religious creed being imposed on a people with a history longer than those monotheistic beliefs, it is the story of everyone, everywhere. Satrapi’s treatment of her life in exile—during part of the war with Iraq—provides the reader with a glimpse of what happens when East meets West. What happens is not exceptional, but only what goes on everywhere. And yet providing the reader with scene after scene of one Iranian woman’s experience provides the reader with the nuance (contained sometimes in a speech bubble with nothing but three dots in it: …) of the experience of anyone anywhere forced to deal with the injustices of ignorance, barbarity, sexism and plain cruelty.

I think that Persepolis should be required reading for every American (an unlikely prospect!) because our collective cluelessness about a country and people as fascinating and complex as the Iranians, and as much like us as anyone else is (save for their relative sophistication), is a real threat to the stability and peace of the world. After all, as Robert G. Ingersoll put it, “Ignorance is the only slavery.”

p.s. for those of you who would rather watch Persepolis it is available on film (with English subtitles). Take a look at this trailer.


Photo by Alborzagros – File:Nations Gate palace (kakh-e-darvaz-e-keshvarha) in Persepolis.tif (edited version), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45347465
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