Roland Merullo, Fidel’s Last Days (New York: Shaye Areheart, 2008). 268 pp. $23.00.
Just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution comes Roland Merullo’s ninth novel, a political thriller about a conspiracy to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Fidel’s Last Days is neither alternate history nor an elbow-nudging political roman à clef. To keep his novel from being overtaken by events, Merullo sets it at some indeterminate time in the recent past or near future. The book knows nothing of an acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding and a transfer of power to Raúl Castro. And when he introduces an American politician—one of the conspirators is the vice president of the United States—Merullo lists no party affiliation. Unlike such recent political fiction as Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint or Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, his novel does not depend upon partisanship for its appeal. Apologists for Castro won’t like it, but they hardly constitute a major party, even in the U.S.
Merullo’s description of the vice president puts his true allegiances on display. Edmund Lincoln is rich, having “made a fortune more quickly than seemed mathematically possible,” but despite six years as governor and two terms as senator and vocal opposition from “the liberal press,” he remains something of a mystery: “no one seemed to know the full extent of his influence,” although it is pretty clear that he need not inform any higher-up of his decisions (the “president was a pretty face, a figurehead”). The eyes of a certain kind of reader will widen with the expectation that Merullo intends to draw a portrait of Dick Cheney, but that would be to mistake his method. Rather than ripping from the headlines, Merullo takes hints from them. His real interest is in carefully building up a world in which such a vice president might live and labor, a co-conspirator in a plot to overthrow a dictator.
A secretive non-governmental organization called the Orchid, “founded by men who remained miraculously anonymous” and “staffed largely by former intelligence employees,” has undertaken the Havana Project—an international conspiracy to remove Fidel Castro. Ex-CIA agent Carolina Aznar Perez, recruited seven years before, has been assigned to smuggle the weapon into Cuba. She is well-suited to the role. Not only is she a onetime spook; she is also the daughter of fugitives from Castro’s island paradise. Her uncle Roberto Aznar, or “as he was known in émigré circles, the Grand One,” is an anti-Castro leader of the “Miami Diaspora.” Carolina has been raised on the belief that “[i]f what you did ultimately helped people—the Cuban people especially—then it had God’s blessing.”
In Cuba, meanwhile, Carlos Arroyo Gutierrez has been selected to carry out the murder. Minister of Health and Castro’s personal physician for six years, Carlos is well-placed to realize the long-deferred dreams of the anticastroistas. Not only do monthly checkups leave him alone with el Comandante; he too has become an opponent of the regime. An “enormous hatred” has been growing in him compounded of horror, the murder of dissidents and suspected counter-revolutionaries, “the constant fear, the cascade of lies,” with Castro’s secret police “at the center of it all.”
Merullo stitches the two panels of the plot tightly together, alternating between Carolina’s and Carlos’s part in it while turning aside occasionally to glance at a Communist official, another conspirator, or a traitor. If there are no pleasingly round characters the reason is that Merullo has rejected E. M. Forster’s famous advice in Aspects of the Novel “to pot with plot, break it up, boil it down. Let there by those ‘formidable erosions of contour’ of which Nietzsche speaks.” He has written a thriller precisely because it is one of the few contemporary genres that relies upon plot in the old sense of a scheme to achieve some unwelcome end. Character is reduced to drama rather than drama (whatever drama there is) rising like waves of heat from character.
But why a political thriller? If Irving Howe was right that a political novel is “a novel in which the political ideas play a dominant role or in which the political milieu is the dominant setting” then Fidel’s Last Days is not a political novel. Although there is enough political talk, it is on the level of the “common vision” belonging to the Orchid’s three founders:
Far more authentic, and more representative of the novel’s tone, is Carlos’s lover Elena:
What is required to bring about “some measure of truth in [his] life, some measure of goodness in [his] country,” however, is not itself truthful or good. After executing a political prisoner upon a directive from the head of the secret police, Carlos throws his lot in with the conspirators, and to escape detection, to keep functioning, he must operate
This is Merullo’s true subject. What becomes of men and women when they commit themselves to a cause greater than themselves, sacrificing personal integrity, ambition, close relationships, even their lives? A political ideology, as Merullo knows, is merely one variety of such a cause. As Carolina reflects,
Merullo’s previous novels:
• Leaving Losapas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
• A Russian Requiem (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993).
• Revere Beach Boulevard (New York: Holt, 1998).
• In Revere, in Those Days (New York: Shaye Areheart, 2002).
• A Little Love Story (New York: Shaye Areheart, 2005).
• Golfing with God: A Novel of Heaven and Earth (Chapel Hill, N.Car.: Algonquin, 2005).
• Breakfast with Buddha (Chapel Hill, N.Car.: Algonquin, 2007).
• American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics (Chapel Hill, N.Car.: Algonquin, 2008).