Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: The Death of Fidel Perez by Elizabeth Huergo

Although Cuba is only 90 miles off the coast of Key West, because of tense relations between the two countries, the lack of diplomatic relations, the travel ban, and the economic embargo, there is a sort of mystery about the island nation that remains in place, at least partially, to this day. And everything that we hear about Cuba in the US is colored by this long and uncomfortable political history and the picture we've imagined. Elizabeth Huergo's novel, The Death of Fidel Perez, takes us into Havana of the last decade and to the real people and their ghosts that live there now.

The novel opens with a drunk and voluble Fidel Perez keening over the inaccessibility of his married lover, Isabella, and his deep love for her. He shouts and slurs his love, misheard by those within earshot as his love for isla (the island), on his brother's rusted and decaying balcony. When the balcony gives way, his brother tries to save him but both men plunge to their deaths on the concrete below, leading eye witnesses to shout that Fidel and his brother have fallen. The gathering crowd, who didn't witness the fall, hears this lamentation, "Fidel cayo y Fidel callo," and a rapidly spreading political rumor wends its way through the city.

Occurring on the 50th anniversary of the Moncada Army Barracks Raid, this silencing and fall of Fidel Perez and his brother is quickly mistaken for the fall of Castro and his brother, taking on massive importance. As the rumor spreads, it is passed first from an aged homeless woman named Saturnina who lives very much in the wilds of her mind. She was broken after the death of her son at the hands of the Batista regime, continuing to believe that Tomas will return to her when Castro too is gone, so she looks at this event and the blood from the Perez brothers that stains her skirts as the omen foretelling her son's return. She wanders her city sharing the news of Fidel's fall, spreading it widely. Elderly professor Pedro Valle has also heard the rumor. He too has a ghost in his past, having spent many years speaking to his old friend Mario, the lost friend whom Pedro betrayed and named during interrogations so long ago. As he too walks through a strangely transformed Havana, this crumbling city which is hesitant to believe the news but timidly hopeful at the same time, lugging his unfinished manuscript about the Cuban Revolution, he keeps counsel with Mario, asking for forgiveness and for direction and guidance. Valle's student Camillo, a taxi driver, finds meaning and a future in the hope he sees burgeoning in the crowd gathering at La Plaza de la Revolucion, rising up as a leader of men. Aging pedi-cab driver, Justicio, meanwhile, who was the one to close the eyes of the Perez brothers, sees the inevitable futility of this convergence.

Occurring over the span of less than one day, this novel is the picture of a broken people, tortured and held fast by a past over which they have never had any control. It details both the corruption of the Batista regime and the lost promise of the revolution led by Castro. It shows a populace crumbling under the weight of poverty, foreign punishment, and a government they are afraid to criticize. The Fidel who falls to his death is mistaken for proclaiming his love for Cuba as well as for the dictator who runs the island, a clear and obvious metaphor. The pace of the novel is slow, wandering through the troubled minds of Saturnina and Pedro Valle just as the rumor makes its way slowly through the streets of Havana. Huergo draws heavily on Cuban history, inserting it seamlessly into the story through the imagined ghosts of her main characters, through the landmarks and places in the novel, and in the date on which she has chosen to set it. The writing is, at times, dreamlike and unreal and the characters, ungrounded in reality as Saturnina and Pedro Valle are, are also sort of wavery feeling. This gives the whole novel a chimerical feel. For those who have a great interest in Cuba and a knowledge of some of the important history, this will probably be worth reading; for others, it may be a little slow and meandering.

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait to read this one after reading this great review. Thanks for making it possible!


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