Papa and Fidel is about, in Karl Alexander’s own words, “what might have happened, what should have happened if Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro had become friends.” While not forgetting to present the historical sequences of the Cuban revolution and its attendant social conditions and dilemmas, I will remember Papa and Fidel as a most gripping fast-paced action-packed novel in the vein of pocket book suspense thrillers.
From the first chapter we are thrown in the middle of things as Hemingway shares a drink with buddy and journalist Herbert Matthews and gets arrested by Batista’s men after saving the latter from being arrested and from sure death. Herb is often credited as the guy who “created” Fidel Castro through his articles and photos of his interviews with Fidel in the guerrilla zones in the mountains of Sierra Maestra.
Hemingway is only released because of the intervention of Batista himself. The literary superstar had a taste of repression and would shift from privileged indifference to become virulently anti-Batista. At the onset, Hemingway did not take Castro seriously. Batista’s propaganda machine have repeatedly drummed up the lie about Castro’s supposed death.
But after his close brush with the regime, Hemingway changed his mind. After all, Castro’s guerrilla movement is at the center of the armed resistance against the dictatorship. He wanted to visit the Sierra Maestra. Writing to Herb, Hemingway asks, “How the hell do I get up there without getting myself killed?”
It would not take long before two guides fetch Hemingway from his cozy residence and take him in one hell of a journey from the city up the Sierra Maestra. They pass through farms and jungles, all the while chased by a battalion-sized army patrol.
Perhaps one of the more wonderful aspects of the novel is the way Hemingway self-reflexively makes self-depreciating comments about his own writing. The experience of the long, difficult, and dangerous climb up the mountain made him reflect about the realism of his own written works:
He thought of a story he’d written long ago, a fishing story, Nick Adams hiking into the mountains of northern Michigan, resting because he was hot and tired. Papa scowled. How come you didn’t write about this pain? he silently raged.
You never told how legs could ache, you never said, and you must’ve known, you had an obligation, but you didn’t write it, you didn’t put it down the way it should have been. “He was very hot and tired…” Big fucking deal. Easy to say, easy to write, but none of the agony comes across.
Here Hemingway comments about the main character of For Whom The Bell Tolls, his classic take on the Spanish Civil War:
Robert Jordan, he never knew pain either, going up his mountain to join Pablo’s band behind the lines in The Bell. Not one damned ounce of pain. Jordan didn’t even get tired, and here you are, a broken old man all cut up inside with muscles that refuse to move, cold, miserable, hurting all over, hunted, on the edge of death. You claim what you write is honest and true, yet how can you if your characters don’t feel? How can you if you’ve never really done what they have? If you’re no longer capable?
“Are your characters bullshit, Hem?” he said aloud, “or are you?”
Hemingway, reminiscing his forays in the First World War and the Spanish Civil War in earlier decades, craves for adventure. Castro wants him, a Nobel Prize laureate, to write about his people’s armed struggle. In the next paragraphs we are shown through Castro’s jungle camp, are acquainted to his revolution, to his guerrillas who “don’t abuse people, ready to die for them unlike Batista’s abusive soldiers.” Then there’s Che Guevara who is presented as somewhat of a dreamer, a utopian among the guerrillas, as opposed to the hard, tough-minded realism of Castro.
In this meeting, the bombastic egos of the two protagonists meet their match. At the first, “Papa couldn’t decide whether the man was satanic or messianic, yet there was no doubt he was political, and over the years Papa had learned never to trust a politician no matter what language he spoke.” But in a shooting contest between the two within the guerrilla zone, the two gradually began to respect each other. Castro quips: “Dios mio, this old man cans shoot! How can he write such beautiful books and still know how to shoot?” This was broken by a raid by Batista’s forces. Here Fidel singlehandedly saves Hemingway.
Papa couldn’t help but admire the big rebel leader. Jesus H. Christ, he thought, this guajiro ain’t no slouch. First, he saves your ass from a machine gun, then takes out the crew, drops three more of Batista’s bozos, shoots the gun out of another’s hand, captures him and his buddy. Helluva day’s work, if I don’t say so myself.
Why the perimeter of their base got infiltrated by Batista’s soldiers is a result of the desertion of an American volunteer. This man is executed as an expression of revolutionary justice. The next day, his younger brother also leaves the camp and would become Castro and Hemingway’s greatest enemy as the novel progresses.
Talking with Herb after returning to the city, Hemingway comments: “The man’s impatient, arrogant, closed-minded, stubborn, and a fucking genius.” “You describing Fidel Castro or Ernest Hemingway?” During this time, Hemingway was in a middle of a writers block, which prevented him from starting to write his last “big book” that would crown his writing career. His integration with Fidel’s guerrilla fighters and fascination with their leader inspired him to devote this last novel to Fidel and the Cuban Revolution.
In another brilliant passage by Karl Alexander, Fidel is depicted as having been inspired by Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in conducting an ambush.
He read the book in three hours, didn’t put it down once, not even for a cigar. The situations were real, the characters, convincing, even for Fidel, not a fan of “make-believe.” He was surprised that Hemingway knew about, say, fighting with a limited ammunition supply, or the value of a trusted contact man, or being able to withdraw once you had won, and so on. In a word, the book captivated Fidel, and he finished it reluctantly, wishing the story would go on.
In fact, it is this mention of For Whom the Bell Tolls that finally convinced me to pick up my own copy of the novel after years of dilly-dallying. Hemingway’s response after realizing this use of his writing?
With growing horror and pride, he realized that finally something he had written had actually made a difference. The Bell had affected history. Blood had been spilled, lives lost; his fiction, the culprit. The Bell, written in part as an antiwar statement, used as a field manual by a brash revolutionary hothead.
Graphic vignettes of episodes from the revolutionary war would follow. Of course, because of the justness of their cause and the support of the people, the revolution is victorious despite the great odds.
The crowds, now thick on both sides of the highway, were cheering wildly, waving M-26-7 flags. Fidel’s throat went dry. He felt he was dreaming, sleepwalking through a scene he could not even have imagined when cold and hungry and scared and surrounded in Sierra Maestra, his men numbering twelve, Batista, fifty thousand plus, the odds, impossible. Yet we won, he thought, still amazed.
Fastforward to the period of the construction of the new regime, the provision of land, education, and health for the masses, the difficulties of socialist construction amidst the economic blockade and outright sabotage by US imperialism, Fidel saw the threat of degeneration and the need for constant vigilance and remoulding, especially among those who led the revolution, among those who once walked the narrow paths of Sierra Maestra.
Meanwhile, Hemingway would continue to write his last big book, which is basically a transposing of his own experiences with Fidel in Cuba into writing:
Main characters. Me’n Castro, one step removed, father and son. Kid saves his country from a horrible dictatorship, makes sweeping changes, declares himself a permanent revolutionary, buries his mother, rejects his father. Eventually, father redeems himself, atones for his sins, has a reconciliation with his son…
Near the ending, Hemingway would payback Fidel for saving his life in the Sierra Maestra years earlier by saving Fidel from an ingenious CIA assassination attempt while they were having a shooting tournament off the coast of Cuba. In this imagined world, Hemingway didn’t kill himself. Rather it was the frustrated CIA agent who murdered him, destroying his final magnum opus in the process, in revenge for his saving Fidel from certain death.
By vindicating Hemingway from a pathetic death by suicide and presenting the just aims and complexities of Castro’s revolution, Karl Alexander’s Papa and Fidel provides readers a more colorful and better version of history. Its attempt to weave a “what if” scenario while remaining loyal to historical facts makes you want to have events happen exactly as it did in the novel. Definitely a must read.