Sunday, July 29, 2007

Travel writer captures the essence of Fidel's school days

Posted on Sat, Jul. 28, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Travel writer captures the essence of Fidel's school days
McClatchy Newspapers

When I first met Patrick Symmes he was in the back of a Havana bar,
sharing a joint with a couple of hookers. The meeting did not take place
in person but through a 1997 Harper's article on Cuba, and I admired his
verve and above all his honesty. Plenty of journalists write about
visiting Cuba, but this was the first time one admitted joining and
enjoying the sleaze - and there is plenty to join and enjoy.

Now Symmes has written a serious book on Cuba, "The Boys From Dolores:
Fidel Castro's Classmates from Revolution to Exile," which is seen
through the prism of the alumni of Colegio de Dolores, a Jesuit school
in Santiago de Cuba where Fidel and Raul Castro were enrolled. Skipping
from alum to alum, Symmes also travels through the history of the
revolution and the personality of its leader.

Fidel Castro comes across as a complex character, half reckless courage
and half calculated manipulation. While some of his actions have been
daring, the Cuban leader himself has wrought the mythology of his
personality and that of the long-lived and tattered revolution he has led.

The alums are a mixed bunch. The school served the Santiago elite, so
not surprisingly, many have gone into exile, such as Luis "Lundy"
Aguilar, who was Fidel's classmate and for a while his friend. In exile,
he served as op-ed editor of and frequent contributor to El Nuevo
Herald. Aguilar, Symmes reports toward the end of his book, has fallen
to the vicissitudes of old age - in his case Alzheimer's - as have many
of the "Dolores boys," including Castro. A handful of alums remained in
the island, with various degrees of fealty to the regime.

Symmes' reporting leads him to learn that Raul Castro - whose school
nickname was The Flea - was then, as until recently, Fidel's second
fiddle. The writer reconstructs the rhythms of life in the school and in
Santiago, Cuba's second city and eternal rival of Havana but at heart a
provincial town.

Symmes has no political ax to grind. In his Harper's article he called
exiles "history's losers"; here he is merciless in his description of
the failed and corrupt revolution, writing that he figures he won't be
allowed back into Cuba. He places the Revolution in perspective by
comparing Cuba's woes to those of other Latin countries, something
Castro's enemies seldom do.

Told by some Cubans about horrific slums, he is driven to what he
expects will be a shocking sight. Instead, the sanguine Symmes breaks
into giggles. He has seen the worst of the region's favelas; these
"slums" appear to him like clean suburbs. The experience prompts him to
ask the inevitable question: Is the only choice for a country such as
Cuba a repressive government that maintains a minimum standard of
living, no matter how far from its goals, or "freedom" with the truly
abject and socially unjust conditions prevalent in other Latin
countries? "Which was better?" Symmes writes. "Repression and control,
or freedom and chaos?"

He has no answer. What he has is heart, and his observations are on the
money. A travel writer, Symmes delivers a muscular prose and a keen
sense of detail. He lacks the erudition and intellectual perspective of,
say, David Rieff, who has written extensively on Cuba and Miami. But
Symmes' unabashed raffishness keeps him afloat in the treacherous
wetlands of Cuban politics and culture.

Cuba, as one of the island's writers illustrated in a novel, can be a
quagmire. Outsiders are easily seduced by its sizzle and then caught up
in its erotic webs of intrigue and contradictions. But sooner or later,
they sink. Symmes comes close, very close, to getting it right. He notes
the most obvious signs of the exiles' nostalgia-fed exaggeration about
the old times. But he does not know such exaggeration has been ridiculed
for decades, including how-many-Cubans-does-it-take-to-change-a
-lightbulb jokes. (Nor does he seem to register that Lundy Aguilar's
famous humor piece, "The Prophet Speaks of the Cubans," is a spoof of
Khalil Gibran's "The Prophet.")

And he fails to see, because he only knows Castro's Cuba, how such
exaggeration is based on a reality the revolution has practically wiped
off the map. Cuba before Castro was full of corruption, injustice,
tyranny, violent instability. It was also full of a sweetness that was
as real as it was fragile and mortal.

"The Boys From Dolores: Fidel Castro's Classmates from Revolution to
Exile" is published by Pantheon. $26.95.

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