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Fiction

Paul Vidich’s The Good Assassin raises a number of questions, some of which have to do with the action in this “Cold War spy fiction” that just happens to be set in Havana, on the eve of the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution; and others that have more to do with why we read in the first place.  In other words, what is any particular reader looking for when they open a book?

 

As far as this particular novel goes it is entertaining, to a degree, pacey enough, although it does not have much depth.  There is little or none of the subtext that I personally prefer to deal with in the books I read.  The characters are pretty flat, rendered with little nuance, and therefore not complex.  And the portrait of Havana in 1958 is limited, and almost stereotypical, the sense of the place tinted by the lens of the genre.  More than once I thought that The Good Assassin could be located just about anywhere, at any time, it really didn’t matter when and where. 

 

On the level of language Vidich strains more often than he accomplishes, and it shows.  Some lines strike cold and hard and fast and true, and others are practically unintelligible:

 

Mueller didn’t agree to the assignment at their lunch, but his silence was confederate to the director’s request.  He knew one week was an impossibly optimistic estimate of the time he’d be in Cuba, but the idea that he would escape campus lethargy had tart appeal.  His sabbatical was upon him, but he’d lost interest in his research on the puns and paradoxes in Hamlet, a lively but binocularly narrow topic, and he was out of sorts with his life. 

 

Despite pretty much everything in this novel being clichéd to some degree, this paragraph early in the story—which goes on in this vein—provides the reader with a pretty good idea of who and what Mueller is, even if Mueller’s character, as developed throughout the book, remains basically two dimensional, and therefore unrealized.

 

Of course Mueller is going to bed Katie, the plucky free-lance photographer he’s hired as part of his cover.  But what, really, does this mean?

 

They found themselves tempted by the idea that they were more interesting and spontaneous than the physics of a professional calculation.

 

Or:

Self-deprecation was a strategy too.  He knew better than to allow spite to jeopardize a deceit.

 

There are plenty of these presumably witty but not-entirely-clear affirmations, lines that must sound good to Vidich’s ear and that do sound like the sort of thing that might come out of Humphrey Bogart’s mouth—in voice over, if necessary—but are, unfortunately, closer to gibberish.  Later Vidich will write, “Sunlight flushed shy thoughts from his mind” followed by this:

 

Mueller felt in that part of his mind that calibrates threats before they are obvious the risk of being made complicit in a crime.

 

This, at least, is straight forward and comprehensible and it has the necessary crime-thriller beat.  But too often Vidich forgets Ezra Pound’s dictum that “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing.”

 

This lack of fundamental accuracy applies not only to his language, but to the observations of his characters and the action.  At the very beginning of the novel Mueller flies from Connecticut to Cuba, presumably passing through Miami.  And yet he looks out the window as they begin their descent towards Havana and sees the Sierra Maestra, where Fidel Castro launched his efforts to overthrow Batista.  Unfortunately for the reader who knows anything about Cuban geography this is impossible:  the flight from Miami usually enters from the west and the Sierra Maestra is located east of Havana:  over 400 miles away, as the crow flies.

 

In terms of a sense of place, twice in the space of four short pages Vidich describes the landscape—from Havana to Camaguey—as “unchanging:”

 

The four of them were driving through a monotonous section of the Carretera Central several hours into their journey to Camaguey.  Fields of sugar cane and thorn brush filled the view, and ahead, still a ways off, the russet hills of their destination…They smiled at Mueller’s comment, but their eyes drifted back to the unchanging landscape.

 

After winding through more “thorn brush,” whatever that might be, specifically—what this brush might actually look like, or how looking at so much of it might make someone feel—Mueller looks at Liz and sees a “sad expression” on her face “that was a window onto a terrible grief,” as “she gazed out at the barren, unchanging landscape of dry red earth on the passing hills.”

 

Just as the landscape, and setting in general, is treated in this offhand manner, so too are the characters handled, not as if they were individuals leading unique lives, but as if they were stereotypes of the brusque heartless American rancher-businessman and the pitiful adulterous-of-necessity wife.  Katie—the spunky photojournalist—actually has a bit of character, but her role in the story is minor.  Nothing about this story carries the conviction of any kind of truth, either of place or character.

 

But the story is full of these baffling lines, that might make the reader pause and puzzle over Vidich’s intent:

 

He began to see there was a way to think about Graham’s life as spun from a single filament of fact woven loosely into a fabric of sheer audacity.

 

The jeopardy of the moment deepened and turned profound.  Smells of rain drifted to them and branches ripped from trunks flew into the air.  A woman with wounded memories finds it helpful to succor the pain by sharing thoughts with a friend.  And so it happened.

 

Perfect weather at the start of All Saint’s Week provided the opportunity to honor the promise of the day.

 

One of the major problems of this novel is that nothing is believable.  Not that a reader can’t or won’t follow the action and wonder what will happen next, without disbelieving what they’re being told.  But rather the reader is being told too much, and too little is demonstrated in this novel.  We are supposed to believe this conversation is taking place during a hurricane, but nothing Vidich does with his prose suggests the experience of a hurricane.  The threat of violence is supposed to be all around these characters, but the reader never feels this threat of violence. 

 

Vidich writes, at the beginning of Chapter 9, near the end of the novel, and shortly before its climax, “The little party was using the charm of a fisherman’s shack to escape the oppression of the war.  They all wanted to embrace the trip as a way to lighten the day, contain their drama and preserve decorum, but Mueller felt jeopardy in the fragile peace.” 

 

Vidich uses the word ‘jeopardy’ here as above to try to convince the reader, via the use of a single word, and by relying almost exclusively upon that word’s definition[1] that his characters are involved in a dangerous situation.  But the reader—or I, at least—never feels this.  There is no sense of threat percolating beneath the surface of this novel, no subtext of real danger.  Everything is almost distressingly obvious and obviously fabricated. 

 

So it shouldn’t have been any surprise to me to see how Vidich used—or usurped—certain motifs and characters from The Great Gatsby to generate his own characters (Jack is almost interchangeable with Tom, although the portrayal of the latter is much more sophisticated) and the climax of his novel, in which Mueller—after a scene almost identical to the scene in Fitzgerald’s novel in which Gatsby tells Tom that Daisy loves him and she finally encourages everyone to go into town in order to relieve the tension created by her dilemma—hits and kills Jack’s lover with the car while he drives a distraught Liz home. 

 

There is also the issue of the stilted speech.  At the fisherman’s shack, where Jack chose to confront and expel Graham, presumably from their home as well as their lives, Liz says to him, her husband, “You let the garden of our marriage go to seed.  There were flowers we planted to remind us who we used to be, but they’ve withered.  Dried up here in this place.  All our sunshine days of memory are not enough to let us ignore the weeds.”

 

The Good Assassin is a quick easy read, that could have been set anywhere, at any period of history.  Just as the setting is immaterial, so are the characters, because they never come to life, and instead remain two-dimensional cardboard stereotypes of characters incapable of devising their own story.

 

To match and balance the impossible sighting of the Sierra Maestra at the beginning of the novel there is the shootout in the belfry of the church where Graham had arranged to meet Liz so that they could leave on a DC 3 at the end of the novel.  Mueller notices two green Oldsmobiles parked outside, to indicate that Pryce—the FBI guy—has not only come with Alonzo, head of SIM, the Cuban Military Police, but is in cahoots with him.  But how can a reader believe this?  These guys are there to take down Graham, who is suspected of delivering arms to the rebels, and they take two cars, each driving one of them, and bring no reinforcements?  Talk about jeopardy!

 

I’ve said enough.  This novel requires some real suspension of disbelief, but that’s precisely what many people read for:  in order to ‘escape reality.’

 

 

[1] Danger of loss, harm, or failure, a term originally used in chess and other games to denote a problem, or a position in which the chances of winning or losing were evenly balanced, hence ‘a dangerous situation.’



By Cuban revolutionary movement – http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/william-morgan.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73744225

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Fiction

The Maids of Havana covers a period of time in which the magnitude of political events could not have been greater, and yet these political developments are presented in a way that indicates both how much and how little the lives of people like Marta were affected by the changes brought about by the triumph of a Marxist Revolution on the island.

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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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History, Non-fiction

T.J. English’s Havana Nocturne is not only the story suggested in the subtitle—How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution—but the story of how Havana in particular came to earn its reputation as ‘sin city’ during the seven-year U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. 

 

And yet the book provides much more than even this.  English offers readers information ranging from the origins of The Commission founded by Lucky Luciano and the average schooling (and with it the ‘thug’ nature) of American mobsters, to the “ominous mood in the air” as midnight approached on the 31st of December, 1958, when Meyer Lansky—a childhood friend of Luciano’s, and long-time criminal associate—sat down to eat with his mistress, driver, and the driver’s girlfriend at a booth in the Plaza Hotel’s “modest café, near Parque Central in Old Havana.”

 

Though it was one of the Havana Mob’s chosen spots, the Plaza was not as established as the Riviera, Capri, Tropicana, and other locations.  By choosing to spend the evening at the Plaza, Lansky was deliberately hoping to avoid the large crowds that would be gathering elsewhere; he preferred something more discreet and less popular with the high-end tourists and his high-ranking associates in the Mob.

 

Lansky was never once found guilty of anything more serious than illegal gambling, despite being a founding member in 1931 of The Commission.  The dapper, publicity-avoiding, Jewish mobster was regarded as not only clever but intelligent.  He might not have known that that night would be Cuba’s last as one of the most glamorous and hedonistic vacation spots in the world, and he certainly didn’t know that Batista had already arranged to flee the country within a matter of hours.  But Lansky knew that the end was near.

 

“The Barbudos (the bearded ones) are close to winning the war,” Lansky told Jaime.  The driver was surprised; his boss did not usually volunteer opinions about Cuban politics. 

Obviously, he was worried.  He told Jaime that although he was familiar with the political inclinations of the barbudos, he didn’t know what the top leadership was going to do.  Most importantly, he was uncertain what their position would be on the casinos, whether they would keep them open or immediately shut them down.

 

Fidel Castro—whose biography and armed revolution are also presented in considerable detail in Havana Nocturne—was also a very clever and intelligent man, adept at playing his political cards.  He kept everyone, including the CIA—which provided funds for Castro’s guerillas at one point, and in this way enabled their campaign to overthrow Batista—guessing.  So as soon as Lansky learned, about 1:30 a.m., that Batista was gone, he began to collect from his casinos all the cash on the premises and he urged his associates to do the same and to shutter the casino-hotels that had made life in Havana so pleasant and profitable for the mobsters.

 

And then he stuck around, “out of curiosity,” to witness Castro’s arrival in the capitol, on the 8th of January, 1959.  “Lansky…and the other gangsters were convinced that, no matter what Castro said, he would have to allow the casinos to stay open if he hoped to keep the island’s economy afloat.”  But within two years of his victory—and within the context of the drastically deteriorating relations with the United States—Castro confiscated and nationalized the Havana Riviera and all the other U.S.-owned businesses on the island, and the Kennedy Administration imposed an economic embargo that remains in effect to this day.

 

Telling the end of this story cannot possibly spoil it for anyone interested in learning more about how the mafia came to choose Cuba as its offshore base of operations, and the ways in which all foreign interests operated under a corrupt dictator determined to skim his share of the profits on absolutely everything, including the parking meters in Havana.

 

Because it is those details—their extent and depth and nuance—that enrich T.J. English’s fluid prose, and make reading Havana Nocturne so informative, eye-opening and enjoyable.

 

 

 

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Fiction

It isn’t as if no dark currents course through this novel. Instead, it’s as if Greene, while allowing brief glimpses of the background for his ‘entertainment’ manages to always deftly turn his readers’ attention away from the dangers lurking in the bush.

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