Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2017. 240 pages. $18.00.
When Fidel Castro passed away last November, commentators were quick to offer judgments that were less objective appraisals of the former Cuban President’s record on economic development, healthcare, education, and civil rights, and more projections of their existing views on socialism, capitalism, and Cuba itself. The Liberal Canadian PM Justin Trudeau eulogized “el Comandante” as “a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century” and “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation,” while Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—the first Cuban-American ever elected to Congress—marked Castro’s death by declaring, “A tyrant is dead and a new beginning can dawn on the last remaining communist bastion of the Western hemisphere.”
Yet while such epitaphs veered widely in their evaluations of Castro’s legacy, they were united in at least one thing: they revealed how Castro himself had become as much a symbol of the world’s political convictions—and of the revolution he spearheaded—as he was a living, breathing human being. And while there are important exceptions to this rule, this is to a large extent the position he occupies in Map Drawn by a Spy, an autobiographical novel by Guillermo Cabrera Infante about the latter’s final three months in his native Cuba. Documenting the prized writer’s attempts to flee a country he increasingly struggles to recognize as his own, the novel illustrates not only how Castro came in Cabrera Infante’s eyes to represent everything that was wrong with how the Cuban Revolution developed, but also how the people around us often come to symbolize everything we love and hate about our nations and lives.
As the novel begins, it’s the hate that’s much easier to glean than the love, largely because Cabrera Infante begins proceedings being so thoroughly unhappy about having been barred from leaving Cuba once again after returning from Brussels, where he’s a cultural attaché at the Cuban embassy. He returns for his mother’s funeral, leaving behind his wife and a more comfortable lifestyle, but has his departure blocked as the veiled and delayed result of what is effectively a personal falling out with a “tight-lipped” security officer. As a result of this unfortunate detention, he rails (inwardly) against miserable lunches of “rice and white beans, barely edible, but apparently now the national dish,” against “how lousy the popular music of the day was,” and against the “many signs of poverty, almost misery” he sees in a hospital waiting room (among other places), including “children sitting on the floor and poorly dressed mothers waiting in the corners.”
Such gritty observations of his environment serve as figures for how he feels about the Revolution’s implementation, yet once again it’s the people surrounding Cabrera Infante who serve as the most prominent symbols of communist Cuba’s problems and his disillusionment with its regime. For instance, in his boredom with repatriated life he takes to people-watching from the confines of his balcony, where he often observes “people walking with a steady but tired stride. . . . Elderly, middle-aged, and young all walked that way. Then he realized what they looked like: the zombies from Santa Mira in Invasion of the Body Snatchers!”
In a similar vein, he also takes to womanizing, something which not only makes him more of a morally nuanced character but also reveals this same tendency to view women (and men) as representations of Cuba’s then-present situation. In one passage involving a trip to Old Havana and its “dust and cobwebs,” his disappointment with the old capital is manifested in the appearance of one of his female friends, Ana Magdalena, about whom he admits, “to make things worse he found her less attractive, her youthful allure buried under early wrinkles and her adolescent shyness transformed into a way of life.”
Such passages often involve an unabashedly direct exposé of Cuba’s poverty and destitution, yet at the same time, their double use as poetic images for the Revolution’s failures qualify them as fine examples of not only literary realism but also a certain kind of impressionism. Of course, this isn’t to say that the entire novel is some kind of expressionistic dream sequence, since Cabrera Infante spends a considerable amount of time recounting in fascinating detail just why he became disenchanted with the Revolution itself. For one, there are recurring references to Castro’s personal defects and hypocrisies, with Cabrera Infante writing at one point, “The wives of the revolution’s leaders were on a crusade to impose the most bourgeois of values regarding the sanctity of marriage. . . . Such ‘revolutionary’ axioms applied to everyone, except of course to Fidel Castro, who could have as many lovers as he liked.”
Worse still, Map Drawn by a Spy goes into unsettling detail on the extent of political repression then underway in Cuba, with the persecution of homosexuals causing a pall of fear and anxiety to descend upon Cabrera Infante and his circle of (mostly artistic) friends. What’s particularly interesting about such details is the light they shine on how Cuban communism stifled and essentially nationalized even private human relationships, with most of the characters in the novel unable to trust or relate openly to each other. As Cabrera Infante admits of himself, “he did not trust anyone and he confided his real situation to no one except [Carlos] Franqui and Alberto [Mora].”
Yet in closing, what ultimately makes the novel so rewarding is that even with its diatribes against the Castro regime, Map Drawn by a Spy still manages to strongly invoke Cuba’s beauty. As above, this doesn’t emerge explicitly but rather through a symbolic conduit, namely a young woman Cabrera Infante meets by the name of Silvia. Appearing almost out of nowhere in the latter half of the novel, Cabrera Infante repeatedly draws an archetypal sketch of her as they begin a heated love affair, virtually comparing her to Cuba itself. Early on in their relationship he muses, “he liked the very Cuban way she spoke,” while later he gives her tellingly neutral features, explaining, “No, ‘lovely’ is not the word; she was not a big woman, or tall, rather average height for a Cuban and very thin.” It’s almost as though her somewhat nondescript beauty makes her the perfect canvas for Cabrera Infante’s fondness for Cuban beauty, which he affirms on one rare occasion: “He thought then, as at other times during his stay, that the only thing that redeemed this country of all its historical sins was its natural beauty and its women, another form of natural beauty.”
And when towards the end of the novel a late-night phone call with Silvia causes him to ponder whether he is “beginning to think of staying,” it can only be concluded that his “final fling” with Silvia is indeed also a metaphor for his final fling with Cuba itself. Without spoiling too much of the ending, it’s a testament to the sheer verve and lucidity of Cabrera Infante’s prose that, even for all the severe issues affecting communist Cuba, the readers will feel something of the writer’s melancholy and heartache when he finally steps onto that plane.