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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]


History, Non-fiction

These bells of doom sound often in the history of American foreign policy and if anyone doubts this they could start by reading Bitter Fruit, the extremely well-documented story of the 1954 American conceived, inspired, financed, led and dictated coup in Guatemala that set a precedent for future U.S. efforts at ‘regime change’ throughout the world.



I’m hesitant to write a less than glowing review of Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters because I’m such an admirer of much of his other work.  And the novel begins in a way that only raised my expectations.  The fantastic dialogue—so cryptic and quippy and spot-on, revealing levels of tacit understanding between the speakers while leaving the reader both wondering and hurrying to catch up—is perfect for this fictional world of renegade turncoat spies and other outcasts that form an international class of interloping social detritus. 


This dialogue along with the suggestive—yet elusive—description of place enhances the strange yet very specific feel of post-civil war West Africa, where the story begins, a part of that huge and troubled continent that seems to be permanently awash in the residues of madness and poverty and the limitless tragedies these two incorrigible factors always spawn.


Having lived next door in Liberia right before all hell broke loose soon after the rigged elections of 1985 much of what Johnson describes is familiar to me.  I used to dream of going back to Monrovia, dark and dangerous dreams imbued with the threat of chaos. 


In Johnson’s novel Roland Nair—whose name alone conjures up Warren Zevon’s Headless Thompson Gunner, the archetypal white mercenary who ends up haunting all civil conflicts everywhere—is supposed to be Danish (just as Zevon’s character was Norwegian) even though he travels on an American passport.  So from the very beginning nothing is certain, least of all anyone’s loyalty to anyone else. 


Nair gets sent to Freetown by the NIIA (a fictional NATO intelligence agency) with the purpose of finding out what his old friend Michael Adriko is up to.  Nair allows Adriko (with whom he served in some unclarified capacity in Afghanistan) to seduce him with his scheme to sell phony processed uranium, as well as his more mundane plans to marry a girl from Colorado—his former commanding officer’s daughter—in his native village, somewhere in the mountainous region of the Uganda-Congo border.


At the same time that Nair is betraying Adriko by not only keeping tabs on him—while reporting none of what he has discovered about Adriko to his bosses in Brussels—he is also falling in love with Adriko’s fiancée and betraying the NIIA by arranging to sell classified information to anyone willing to buy it.


So much for the premise of the story which pretty much ends where it began. 


Long before that though the plot—what there is of plot in this study not so much of character, but of characters—derails.  The fourth and final part of the book relates the captivity, release and breakdown of these characters, none of which can withstand much serious scrutiny.  In some ways the book boils down—as far as what it’s supposed to really be about—to questions of loyalty and commitment.  When Nair and Adriko reconnect somewhere in the Newada Mountains Adriko assures Nair that he was never involved with Tina, the lover Nair left behind in Europe:


 Michael said:

“And I was never with Tina.  Even if I was with her before you came along, I would have told you.”

“I believe you.  I was crazy.  And there’s something I want to say as well.  Are you listening?”

“I hear you.”

I sat up and looked straight at him and tried hard to make him believe this—because it’s true—“I’d never grass a friend.  I might try and steal his girl and leave him to drown in shit while—well, while running off with his girl.  But I’m not a snitch.  Never.”


When this same scene—in essence at least—was practically repeated a few pages later, and so close to the end of the book, it became apparent that Johnson was trying to insist upon a ‘meaning’ for his story that, although laid out from the beginning, the story itself was not that terribly concerned about.  Once they do—spoiler alert!—make it back to Freetown on time to meet the buyers of Nair’s pilfered intelligence, Adriko says, “How much will you profit, Nair, how much money?”

“One hundred K US. That’s the price for betraying absolutely everyone.”

“But, Nair—you didn’t betray me.”

“Not quite.  Not yet.”

“The slate is clean between us.”

“I tried to steal your girl.”

“I take it as a compliment.”


And so, in a sense, no harm was done. 


The story finishes inconclusively, leaving in the air the prospect of another Nair-Adriko adventure, somewhere in the world.  The problem is, the story’s playfully sardonic treatment of everyone and all things—while entertaining—leaves the reader wondering not so much what any of this matters, but rather, who cares? 



p.s.  The untimely early death of Denis Johnson on the 24th of May of this year makes me feel even worse about writing a less than glowing review of one of his books.  I repeat:  this is because I am such an admirer of so much of his work, the almost epic Tree of Smoke and the equally large-in-scope novella Train Dreams, even the curious and ghostly Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Johnson’s first novel, Angels, which suggested the potential and nature and inclinations of this fantastic writer, as well as some of the stories in Jesus’s Son


But some of the works that great writers produce are better than others, and even the greatest writers have produced less than fully satisfactory works.  And a review like this one is nothing more than my own humble assessment and opinion, with which anyone is free to differ.