Papa and Fidel is an Intriguing Alternate History Complete with Booze, Rebels and Literature
By David Maine 13 May 2010
History tells us that Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway met only once, in 1960, shortly after Castro seized control of Cuba and then—wait for it—won a silver trophy at the Ernest Hemingway marlin fishing tournament. Papa and Fidel, on the other hand, posits what might have happened had the two men become acquainted in 1957, when Castro is a still a jungle-bound revolutionary and Hemingway, at 57, is a man teetering on the edge of a dangerously bleak crisis of self-worth. Unable to write anything of value and all too aware that his best days are behind him, Hemingway seizes on the energy of the younger man to revitalize his enthusiasm, and maybe even write one more great book.
Karl Alexander’s novel is a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of this premise. Hemingway comes off as irascible and larger than life, a man of prodigious appetites—for sex, for alcohol, for adulation—yet one who is all too aware of the constraints that his image places upon him. At times, the narration waffles in and out of interior monologue, as when Papa contemplates his increasingly difficult role in his own mythology: “You been scared before—like when that nine-foot gizzly came at you from behind those Idaho pines, and you only had five seconds to drop the monster, but you, afraid? Must come with age.” He goes on to characterize this fear as “very fucking un-Hemingwayesque.” If any single term could be used to sum up the Hemingway of these early chapters, it would be “un-Hemingwayesque.”
Wisely, Alexander avoids any clever mimicry of the writer’s signature style. The language is by no means ornate, but it is tough to imagine Papa writing something like this about New York City:
The older he became, the more he hated the city with its arrogant salesclerks, nasty taxi drivers, condescending receptionists, hostile bartenders, even. What the hell was the world coming to when you went into the West End on 114th Street, ordered Scotch straight up, and the fucking bartender asks you where you got the Hemingway costume?
Alexander’s sentences consistently hum with this kind of energy and humor. Papa often wrote with such energy himself, but rarely with the humor. “The hell with New York, he told himself. Maybe those Russkies’ll drop an A-bomb on it and somebody in Des Moines’ll publish the rest of my stuff.”
Alexander’s Hemingway, living in Cuba in 1957, undergoes a transformation upon his fictitious meeting with Castro. The meeting itself is dangerous to arrange and more so to carry out, but both men persevere, dodging bullets and mosquitoes in roughly equal numbers. Something unexpected happens as a result: Papa’s writer’s block wavers, his habits and health improve. While Castro harbors the wish to cultivate the norteamericano celebrity to lend legitimacy to his revolution, Papa himself benefits in ways more personal, but no less selfish.
Through it all, the prose lopes along vigorously. This is as true when Castro is in the spotlight as when Hemingway is. Making the transition from mountain bandito to Cuban President, setting Batista packing while taking over the daily administration of his impverished island nation, Fidel remains touchingly childlike, an idealist who loses his naivete one screw-up at a time. This transition is abetted by the high life in Havana: glittering parties and crumbling infrastructure, baseball games and assassination attempts, inept bureaucrats and dirt-poor peasants, Soviet caviar and booze. Plenty of booze. The only person who drinks more than Castro, it appears, is Hemingway.
Other characters come to life in these pages: Fidel’s wistful son, Fidelito, and Hemingway’s wife Mary (his fourth) both suffer the fate of loving difficult men preoccupied with their quests for greatness. Perhaps the most intriguing character is Todd Blackburn, an upper-class American college student-to-be who, along with brother David, joins Castro’s cause and dreams of bringing liberation to Cuba. (And if he gets laid along the way, hey, that’s all right, too.) When an episode early in the book goes violently awry, Todd’s dedication to the cause undergoes an equally gruesome transformation.
Alexander cleverly incorporates some of the well-worn tropes of Papa’s later life—his writer’s block, his suicide—using them in surprising ways to create an alternative mythology. Humor, energy, and inventiveness are evident by the bucketful. Originally published in hardcover in 1989, this new edition marks the book’s first release in paperback, and one has to wonder why. A bonus: there is ample fodder within these pages for conspiracy theorists of all persuasions.
Time After Time, the author’s best-known novel, posited the creation of a time machine invented by H.G. Wells and commandeered by Jack the Ripper, who used it to travel to the modern era. This novel is another case of Alexander using historical figures in surprising new configurations, to solidly entertaining effect.
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