My Life, By Fidel Castro, ed. Ignacio Ramonet

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The Independent Culture

On my first visit to Cuba, in 1993, the Soviet market for Castro's sugar had dried up and despair hung over the Caribbean island. On the return flight I sat next to Arthur Scargill's wife, who was reading a copy of the party daily Granma (named after the ship which ferried Castro and Che Guevara from Mexico to begin the revolution in 1956). She was part of a contingent of miners' wives who had come to donate obsolete coalfield equipment to Cuba's ailing copper industry. As a last bastion of Communism, Cuba still commands sympathy and respect from the Left.

Ignacio Ramonet conducted a series of interviews with Castro between 2003 and 2005. The result, translated by Andrew Hurley, is a "biography" of the Cuban leader in the form of a series of questions and answers. Unfortunately, Ramonet has nowhere attempted to fashion a narrative out of the often thrilling events of Castro's life. He has transcribed hour upon hour of conversation verbatim – to extraordinarily dull effect. Even diehard Fidelistas will find it hard going.

Fidel Castro – in Ramonet's opinion a man of "great modernity and cleverness"– is one of the last true Communists anywhere. Before the revolucion, Cuba was effectively an outpost of the US, with Havana a Mafia fleshpot and gambling hole. Castro closed the casinos and encouraged a Dunkirk-spirit in his people as they faced ever more drastic belt-tightening. Today, Cubans suffer police surveillance as well as rationed food. Yet one can hardly quibble with the advances made in health and literacy. Now only two per cent of adults are unable to read or write.

Castro's literacy campaign was spearheaded by Che Guevara, who captured the world's imagination with his saintly aura. His admiration for Che is evident throughout My Life. However, Che was prepared to go to the most brutal lengths to obliterate the opposition. He set up the first labour camps in Havana and supervised an estimated 550 executions there. Little is made of this terror: Ramonet is too much in awe to keep a critical distance. The persecutions of homosexuals are also rather glossed over. My Life is, ultimately, hagiography, vitiated by lack of judgement and discerning intelligence.

A cultivated man, Fidel Castro offers his impressions of Balzac, Hugo, Marx and Marquez. Tony Blair is scorned for his "swagger" and "haughty" air, while JF Kennedy (in spite of his role in the disastrous 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion) wins approval as a "brilliant, brave" man. While many predict that Cuba will revert to a Caribbean Torremolinos, Castro – re-elected aged 81 to his assembly seat this week – insists that Cubans have been immunised against the seductions of capitalism and the worst excesses of post-Communism. Let us hope so. In the meantime, this turgid book is no way to celebrate the beautiful, bedevilled island.

Allen Lane £25 (724pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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