Monday, January 12, 2009

Fidel’s Last Days

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:

Throughout history there have always been destructive and constructive forces. As the world has grown smaller, those forces have become concentrated. Democracy is on the side of good, as you can imagine. And we support democracy and free-market principles wherever we can. Avidly. At the same time, as you can also no doubt imagine, democratic process can be cumbersome. The forces of evil know this, and take advantage of it. In certain instances, even the most well-meaning governments act too slowly, or in too much of a mixed fashion. The full might of their goodness cannot be brought to bear. Which is a problem the forces of evil are not burdened by. For instance, our government has a policy of not assassinating political leaders. A moral stance. And yet, think of the lives and trouble that could have been saved if assassinations could be used judiciously.If this sounds more like a businessman’s creed than a philosophy of governance, that’s not surprising. Two of Orchid’s founders are “heads of large conglomerates,” and all three are fabulously wealthy. Merullo intends the speech to come across as abstract and rather pallid, because it is his conviction that men and women are motivated not by principle but by concrete experience.

Far more authentic, and more representative of the novel’s tone, is Carlos’s lover Elena:Here, in Cuba, the people have made a life, in spite of everything, against the greatest odds. You’re going to destroy that now? And build what in its place? Do you even know?This is the voice of whatever is the opposite of ideology—call it the anti-politics of unexceptional life. Not that Merullo denies the existence of evil nor even avoids the word. The difference between Elena and her beloved Carlos, who misses her warm presence in bed and breakfast with her in their apartment after she leaves him, is that life under totalitarianism, which teaches the Cubans to trust no one, which causes the officials to become the men they once cursed, which turns the faces of ordinary citizens self-protectively away from them, is for him “no way to live.”

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 operatein full deceit mode. It was strange: He’d always thought of himself as a truthful man. Now, lately, lying had become as natural to him as taking a breath.Something similar happens to Carolina. She has devoted her whole life to a career in espionage, but she remains torn: “some quiet, nagging tone sounded in the back of her thoughts.” And she wonders regularly whether she would not be happier if she were married with a house full of children.

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,The life she lived was a lonely life of constant small and not so small deceptions in the name of a great cause. It had become a life of almost continuous wariness. Not fear. She was rarely afraid. But everything in her working life had a shadow over it now, false fronts, a dimension not visible to the eye of the ordinary world.Merullo owes more to Eric Ambler than to Martin Cruz Smith, to whom one reviewer unfavorably compared him. An assassination conspiracy is for him just one corner of the usual politics, which denies “the mystery of the human personality,” burying it under title and office. History, he knows, is the sum total of those mysteries.

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).