BOOK REVIEW / The rise and rise of a raggle-taggle rebel: Fidel Castro - Robert E Quirk: Norton, pounds 25

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The Independent Culture
IN Fidel Castro's Cuba, prostitution is back. So are gambling, religion and stand-up comics. In other words, normality is close at hand for a people so long denied the panoply of freedoms that have brought the rest of us to our enviable state of civilisation.

Last week, an article in a British newspaper described with unconcealed approval the latest stage of Cuba's inexorable journey back into the community of international capitalism. As Castro's hold on the Cuban people weakens, optimistic signs are everywhere: the first transvestite night club is open for business; voodoo worship is the latest craze; comedians are telling rude jokes about el commandante en jefe; ships laden with high-rollers regularly leave Havana harbour; and 'smiling whores and rent boys' now loiter in the lobbies of the big hotels. Meyer Lansky, George Raft, Sam Giancana, thou shouldst be living at this hour] The giant fruit machine you created may at last be about to deliver the jackpot.

To those of us born just after the Second World War and brought up in a low-anxiety Britain of decent liberal assumptions and guaranteed full employment for the middle classes, the Cuban revolution occupies a special place in the heart. Fulgencio Batista's flight from Havana four hours after midnight on New Year's Day, 1959, closely followed by the triumphal entry of Fidel Castro's raggle-taggle rebel band, brought images of drama and romance into the cosy post-war, pre-youthquake world. Eight years later, the death of Che Guevara, Castro's henchman, gave a generation its first martyr, hastening the delirious but ultimately meaningless events of May 1968.

Meaningless? Perhaps. Robert E Quirk, a former director of Latin American studies at Indiana University, certainly thinks so. He believes we were hoodwinked. In this monster of a biography - 840 pages, plus 45 pages of bibliographical attributions - he does his best to disperse the misty sentimentality which clings to the legend of the Cuban revolution, to persuade us that it was an unnecessary adventure undertaken by a dangerously erratic egomaniac bent on compensation for his own inadequate childhood, a cruel imposition on an uncomprehending populace.

A few years ago, a Cuban government official told me - out of the side of his mouth, which shows how things have changed - that you could divide the island's population into three parts: the 10 per cent who would still lay down their lives for Castro's revolution; a second 10 per cent who were desperate to ride anything - a ship, a raft, an old tractor tyre - across the treacherous waters to Miami; and the remaining 80 per cent, who wanted only a quiet life and were indifferent as to which side made it possible. Much like anywhere, really, although daily life in Cuba has clearly been anything but an easy ride over the past 35 years. But who is to blame?

Quirk can hardly avoid the question of the CIA's ceaseless efforts to restore a puppet regime, starting with the freelance fire-bombing of the sugar-cane fields, nor the 30-year US trade and tourism blockade which kept Castro in the embrace of the Soviet pseudo-economy, but somehow he makes them sound less than significant. In any case, to read this account you would think that life under Batista had involved only the most insignificant degree of hardship and exploitation. The economy in the late Fifties? Booming] Or about to, anyway. Sugar, tourism, cigar production? Never better] But poverty, crime, child prostitution? Silence. The involvement of American gangsters in Cuban life is reduced, over the course of 840 pages, to three sentences. (Which is not much less than Quirk devotes to Castro's eradication of illiteracy and disease. But then, or so Quirk seems to be implying, if Castro built the schools and hospitals with Russian money, they can scarcely qualify as genuine achievements.)

If Quirk fails to provide a convincing mise en scene for the anti-Batista uprising, he is even less adequate in building up a psychological profile of the man who became the movement's figurehead. The problem is not a lack of facts. The accumulation of the detail of Castro's early life is characteristically thorough. But when every hearsay description of Castro's life and personal qualities is coloured by an authorial sneer, from his table manners and his oratory to his choice of school for his son and his military acumen, it becomes impossible to take seriously much of what Quirk has to say about anything. Could such a man as his Castro, such a fool and a boor, so chippy and selfish and vain and weak in judgement, have led the force which began with 82 men and a leaky boat in November 1956 to victory over Batista's US-backed forces two years later?

This inability to bring Castro to life, even as a monster (there is, correctly, a lengthy examination of his systematic persecution of dissidents and homosexuals), costs Quirk his credibility in every subsequent department of this exhausting volume; his petty prejudices are the quicksand that drags at and eventually engulfs the reader's enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, Castro is still there, having seen off Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, together with goodness knows how many heads of the CIA, most of whom tried to arrange his assassination. Now he is in other kinds of trouble, but Quirk doesn't convince us that he'll succumb, or persuade us to change the habit of a lifetime by wishing him ill.

(Photograph omitted)