"The Island Called Paradise: Cuba in History, Literature, and the Arts"
Author: Philip D. Beidler
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
2014, Tuscaloosa, AL
Over a long career, Beidler has written analyses of early American and Alabama literature, sweeping appraisals of the war literature of WWII and Vietnam, a number of powerful personal essays based on his experiences as a lieutenant in Vietnam and, most lately, outraged appraisals of American political leadership.
To all this he brings considerable skill as a cultural critic, usually of the U.S. But here the subject is Cuba.
The 13 essays of “Paradise,” the result of several trips to Cuba and a prodigious amount of reading, constitutes an informal history of Cuba, from Columbus through Spanish rule; rebellion, especially the Spanish American War, called there La Intervencion; the U.S.-backed corrupt and vicious dictatorship of Batista; the Castro revolution; the betrayal and abandonment by Russia at the collapse of the Soviet Union, called by Cubans El Periodo Especial; right through to the present moment.
Beidler places prime importance on his first and last chapters. In the first, a long explication of the novel “Cecilia Valdes” by Cirilo Villaverde, he asserts that the novel, little-known in America, and its tragic mulatta heroine, is an emblem of Cuban history: “social mores, racial attitudes…economic and class relationships…food and drink, literature and art.”
In short everything.
The last chapter is a paean to Yoani Sanchez, courageous Cuban blogger, who has suffered harassment, arrest, even beatings, posting since 2008 thousands of blogs describing life in contemporary Cuba. She has a million reader comments and is translated into 20 languages. The lesson is: the internet has changed everything. Dictatorship will never be the same.
As important as those two writings may be, most readers will prefer the essays on Desi Arnaz, Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara, Graham Greene, Martin Cruz Smith, Steve Allen, Walker Evans and other more familiar subjects.
We knew Desi was Cuban. Beidler reminds us that Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III was a shrewd businessman, a considerable musician, from a family of “great social prominence and political importance.” His grandfather was a founder of Bacardi rum and his father was the mayor of Santiago. Beidler even explains “babalu”!
Both Ernest Hemingway and Ernesto “Che” Guevara are heroes in today’s Cuba, non-natives who chose it for their home and brought worldwide attention to the island. Both are now, Beidler says “brands.” Che is the man of revolution, youth and courage, Hemingway the old man of endurance.
As much as Beidler tries to praise Hemingway, his politically correct, long-standing irritations burst forth. Ernest was guilty of “swaggering exhibitions of maleness” and was “finally undone by his own bogus cult of heroic personality, a death by suicide with paranoiac delusions about the Internal Revenue Service.”
The Cubans admire him anyway.
The novelist Graham Greene, not so much.
Greene’s masterpiece, “Our Man in Havana,” spoofed cold war spy networks but “refused to take very seriously either the tyrannies and torture of the Batista regime or the heroism and sacrifice of the revolution.”
He is not forgiven.
Beidler also offers a detailed explication of Smith’s thriller “Havana Bay,” set in the desperate period following Soviet abandonment, an essay on the monster Batista, emphasizing his pleasant residency in Daytona Beach, and a comic description of the “Steve Allen Show” the night it broadcast live from Havana for the opening of the Riviera Hotel—owned by American mobsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.