Cabrera Infante is a master wordsmith. Even in translation, his essays reverberate with exquisite phrases. "A revolutionary always digs graves. In fact, he does nothing but dig graves-most of the time other people's graves, as has been amply proved by Stalin, Mao, and Fidel Castro." Or, "In Cuba dreams are the only private property. On the other hand nightmares are all nationalized." Cabrera Infante wields his pen like a sword, and he uses it without mercy on a regime which he despises. It holds a morbid fascination for him, however. In the end, he feels that logic and reason cannot explain Castro, nor more than they can explain Hitler or a Stalin. Careful analysis and exegesis of Castro's Cuba does not interest the author; he is a poet, a novelist, and essayist. His brush is impressionistic, and in the end, it creates a portrait of Cuba far more effective and far more unsettling than any rigorous, academic analysis ever has.
One of the most disturbing essays is titled "Felos de Se," which according to Cabrera Infante was the medieval English expression for suicide. He states that though the Cuban Revolution of 1959 promised life, the result has been a perverse opposite. "One cannot understand the Cuban Revolution," he writes, "if one does not consider suicide as one of its integral, almost essential elements." Early in his life, Fidel Castro like many young Cubans of his generation seized upon the writings of José Martí as inspiration for opposing the corruption of Cuban society and the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Martí was an intellectual leader of an earlier Cuban Revolution, against the Spanish in the 1890s. He died in battle in 1895. Yet, Cabrera Infante interprets Martí's death as a suicide. After all, Martí was a writer, not a soldier, and participating, as Martí did, in a cavalry charge against well-armed Spanish troops was a sure recipe for death. While Cabrera Infante certainly stretches well beyond what is known when he describes Martí's death as an intentional act of martyrdom, he does precisely what all great activist writers have done: he seizes upon an event and turns it into a metaphor.
And suicide is a powerful metaphor for the Cuban Revolution. It is also not simply an image, but for many one-time leaders of the revolution, it has been a reality. In 1952, Eduardo Chibás, the leader of Castro's party and a likely presidential candidate, blew his brains out at the end of his radio talk show. In the years before he successfully seized power, Castro orchestrated a number of suicidal attacks against Batista's forces, and only by luck or fate escaped the torture and death that befell many of his comrades. Miguel Quevado, one time editor of a journal supporting the Revolution, shot himself in exile in Venezuela; Osvaldo Dorticós, president during the first years of the Castro era, shot himself, as did one of the most illustrious revolutionary women of the revolution, Haydée Santamaría, who had been tortured by Batista's thugs and watched as they brought a tray to her holding the eyes of her bother and the testicles of her fiance. A revolution whose leader does away with former friends and allies is troubling enough; a revolution whose former leaders do away with themselves is rotten indeed.
This is just one example of Cabrera Infante's ability to evoke a Cuban Revolution that seems a deadly parody of any rhyme or reason. Many of the essays concern the fate of the Cuban litarati, and these are difficult to follow if one does not know their work. Imagine reading about Robert Frost or Emile Zola having never read them or heard their names. The many writings in this book on Cuban poets and authors are only vaguely accessible to those unfamiliar with the place they occupied in Cuban literate society.
But the bulk of the essays deal more directly with the regime. Along with suicide, the most prominent theme is that of the exile. "Cuba is the country that has produced the most exiles during more than a century and half of American history. Cuban literature...was born in exile." In another essay, Cabrera Infante writes of himself, "Now I live in exiledom by the sea. Here I work and play and I even watch other people work and play from a cosy vantage point: my bay windows by the bay." He calls himself "the invisible exile." Exile becomes for him another way of conceiving Cuba, for even in his exile from the land of Fidel, he remains fiercely, proudly Cuban. "To be Cuban is to be born in Cuba. To be Cuban is to go with Cuba everywhere. To be Cuban is to carry Cuba in a persistent memory. We all carry Cuba within like unheard music, like a rare vision that we know by heart. Cuba is a paradise from which we flee by trying to return."
Reading Mea Cuba is a passionate journey into one man's vision of what his homeland has become. It is at turns funny and depressing, entertaining and bewildering. It is hardly a complete look at Castro's Cuba. One would never know from the book that there is a debate about what the Cuban Revolution has accomplished. One would never know that there have been pockets of progress amidst the turmoil and the Kafkaesque "Grand Guignol," as Cabrera Infante calls the distorted landscape of Castro's regime. One would never know of the support that Castro enjoyed and continues to enjoy, albeit at a far diminished level. One would never know of the enmity of the United States and the great pains which Washington has taken to ensure the worst for the Cuban Revolution.
Yet, no one can argue with Cabrera Infante's impressions, and though he speaks in metaphors, he does not play fast and loose with facts. There may be sins of omission, but he is not trying to write academic or policy analysis. He is not trying to be fair. He is a writer, a poet, an essayist, and a Cuban who can only experience his country from the outside. He cannot return. He is an exile who has not followed the suicidal examples of so many others. And he evokes the pain and the confusion of a man who has lost that which he loved and that which he knows he may never again have: his home.