Despite their sworn hatred for each other, the two old men at the heart of Cristina Garcas hilarious and often touching sixth novel, King of Cuba, have a number of things in common. They share a long list of physical ailments and are related to swarms of clueless well-wishers, but more than anything else, they each pine for a redemptive legacy. On one side is Goyo Herrera, who lives in exile in Miami; on the other is Cuban dictator El Comandante – a cleverly fictionalized Castro.
Goyo imagines Here Lies a Cuban Hero etched on his headstone, and despite mounting despair, El Comandante believes he deserves the same inscription. By shuttling her narrative between these two old warriors, Garca, whose first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was a finalist for the National Book Award, creates a bittersweet story whose power far outweighs its simple structure.
Both Goyo and El Comandante have bright memories of the days before the Revolution 60 years ago, and both have had to live with a long accretion of disappointments ever since. For 80-something Goyo, the main disappointment is his 60-something son, Goyito, an oafish drug addict whos constantly messing up his own life. El Comandante also has family woes, including his good-natured brother Fernando, whos enamored of Rolexes, golf and hot tubs (Some Communist ideologue hed turned out to be). But El Comandantes main regret is the sloth and petty crime that have worked their way into his perfect socialist paradise. The members of the rising generation expect to survive without working – and moreover, feel entitled to not working. The fact that his approaching 89th birthday will be celebrated with a staging of Bay of Pigs: The Musical! isnt lifting his spirits, either.
As this antic story develops, Goyo, whod had to parcel out his grief judiciously, or he wouldve died from it long ago, hatches a plan to kill El Comandante during his next speech at the United Nations. Garca clearly intends us to feel both sides of this drama equally, but in perhaps the novels sharpest irony, El Comandante steals our sympathies. The portrait Garca paints of him – nostalgic but utterly unsentimental, evil but magnetic – is the best thing shes ever written, a pitch-perfect study of tyranny in winter. We must make our peace with the necessity of dying, he tells a group of hunger-striking dissidents in the books most morally complicated chapter. But remember this: you wont create a new solar system in which I am not the sun. Even after Im gone, the heat of my presence will be felt.
Like it or not, that heat – and not Goyos doomed heroism – is this great books lasting impression.