Old hostilities take on new slant in Cristina Garcia’s ‘King of Cuba’

In the opening scene of Cristina Garcia’s King of Cuba, a decrepit, cigar-puffing El Commandante orders a groveling minion nicknamed “the ass-sniffer” to open a window overlooking the decaying Havana skyline so the dictator can expel a sputtering stream of flatulence onto winds headed straight toward his enemies in Miami.

Ninety or so miles away, Goyo Herrera, an 80-something Cuban exile with a host of physical complaints, a drug-addled son and a mustard-colored boat of a Cadillac, hangs on to life for one reason: to celebrate El Commandante’s death. Or better yet, to cause it.

In Garcia’s fabulously absurdist new novel, the pitched battle between Fidel Castro and the U.S. exile community has come down to a fight against time. The combatants struggle against creaky knees, faulty tickers and each other, each willing the other side to die already. Victory may be measured in taking one more breath than your foe.

Much has been written about Havana vs. Miami in more than five decades of hostilities, but Garcia’s satirical version of events captures the sometimes bizarre history of a standoff that has included Operation Mongoose, a years-long series of efforts to kill Castro. The topic feels fresh because Garcia sets the novel in modern times. Passions may have cooled, but the anger remains, ossified but still there.

The arc of the story is personal for the Cuban-American Garcia. Born in Cuba, she lived in Miami during the late 1980s as bureau chief for Time magazine and in 2011, she was a visiting professor at the University of Miami. Her deep understanding of the exile mindset and the can’t-look-away preoccupation with Fidel Castro — which will continue until his final day on earth — feels as strong and authentic as a steaming cafecito on Calle Ocho.

Garcia writes a casual exchange between Goyo and his housekeeper, who escaped Cuba two years earlier, that illustrates the recent chasm between new arrivals, who grew up during Castro’s regime, and exiles who left their homeland in the early days.

“So what’s happening with the Old Goat?” Estrella, the housekeeper, asks Goyo, referring to the Cuban tyrant. Goyo replies that someone set El Líder on fire — a burning cigar-ash in bed had been publicly spun as another attempt on his life. “He’s almost dead.”

“We’re all almost dead,” Estrella responds, dismissing the news, leaving Goyo to muse that “her bitterness was mere topsoil next to Goyo’s geological hatred” of El Commandante. The phrase, layer upon layer of hatred built up over decades, hardening into rocklike determination, describes the emotional timeline of the last 50-plus years for so many Cuban exiles.

Much of the underlying tension in the book derives from the parallels Garcia draws between the lives of the two men. Both are sour with disappointment in their children, who have turned out weak, dull-witted and frivolous. And El Commandante views his brother — now holding the reins of power, just as Raul Castro does in Cuba — as only slightly better, noting that he has “the charisma of a box of crackers.”

Women have come and gone for both of men, even after they married. And both have tasted success — El Commandante as a revered figure in Cuba, at least in his opinion, and Goyo as a businessman. After the regime expropriated the family business and land, Goyo opened a New York diner serving tropical island specialties. He bought a brownstone in New York, an oceanfront condo in Key Biscayne and enough plastic surgery for his wife and himself that he has begun to resemble a flounder, with both eyes somehow migrating to the right side of his face.

The creep of age has left both men feeling tired, impotent and infuriated by ineptitude and injustices they see around them. The old thrills have lost their zest. El Commandante finds himself yawning as he torments hunger-strikers in prison. Goyo finds himself fantasizing more and more about taping his archenemy’s mouth shut and turning off all his flat-screen TVs so he can no longer flip the channels looking for his likeness on television. The two men are on a collision course more than 50 years in the making.

King of Cuba is about wish fulfillment, that long-imagined moment for many exiles when they have a chance to confront the man they blame for ruining their country and so many lives. Garcia delivers the conclusion in style but with a caveat: Revenge isn’t always what you think it might be.

Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.

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