Review of Fidel Castro: A Spoken Autobiography
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 4/21/08
There are many different ways one could approach when reviewing this book. On one hand, it’s an excellent source when thinking of Fidel Castro. Not so much because of historical and objective accuracy, but one of Castro’s character. On the other hand, could one claim this a pleasant read? Unless you are just a die-hard Fidel fanatic, I think most readers would find this boring.
Just to give a bit of background, the book is a spoken autobiography, and so basically it’s a 600-page interview with Fidel Castro. The interview, conducted by Ignacio Ramonet, consists of unchallenging questions, and ones that don’t really focus Castro in his replies. For example, a good interviewer should be asking questions that prompt discussion, for the most interesting and entertaining interviews are those where you have a discussion going on between the interviewer and interviewee. Such is not the case with this book. For one, Ramonet doesn’t ever challenge Castro on the things he says. Just to give an example, Castro spends a decent length of time talking about Che Guevara and what a great and “gentle” man he was, yet Ramonet doesn’t even bother asking Castro to comment about Che’s controversy and why many consider him to be nothing more than a mass murderer.
A good interviewer would have at least challenged that fact, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it. Another example is when Castro speaks about his childhood and how he loathed authority. Ironic then that one who loathed authority as much as he did eventually grew into a dictator. None of this is mentioned, and these examples only allow me to conclude that the entire interview is pretty much 600 pages of puffery.
Yet, having said that, the positive side is that readers will be given an “in” into Castro’s character. Such as, if one wanted to write a book about him, this would be an excellent source to quote from. But does that mean that Castro is telling the complete truth? Not likely. And given that the interviewer does not challenge him in any way, readers are left only hearing one side of the story.
Just to give a bit of an example, here’s what Castro says about Che:
“Che carried out the mission I’d sent him on…We lost seven combatants and had eight wounded, several of them seriousl. Once we’d achieved our victory, we provided aid to those who needed it. Che and the garrison doctor treated the enemy wounded, where there were more of than our own, and then they treated ours. Che treated all of them. You can’t imagine that man’s sensitivity!”
Of course Castro is putting himself in the best possible light, as he is Che, but readers wanting to get a deeper understanding into what went on between Castro and Che and why Che is so loathed by many won’t be finding it in this book. Instead, Castro is a brilliant and sympathetic man and Che was gentle as a dove and would stop at nothing to aid the sick.
The book covers the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as Cuba’s relations with Africa and Spain, just to name a few of the major topics. It doesn’t delve too much into Castro’s personal life, save for his childhood and the way he grew up, his hatred for authority, his rebellious nature. His childhood was probably the most interesting section of the book, since Castro is telling the readers a story and not bogging them down with dates and detail. Yet in the later sections, readers will get bogged down by Castro’s quoting of dates and detail, for this book is primarily a historical reference told through one man’s point of view, and certainly not an objective one. There’s not much going on in terms of “insight” but again, much of that could have been corrected if the questions were a bit deeper and more challenging. (Literally Castro will speak for two pages and the interviewer will opine with one word or sentence, which for a reader can become tedious).
If you are looking to read a book about Castro or 20th Century Cuban history, I recommend seeking out a more objective source because clearly when dealing with the political issues, Castro—the man who instilled the rules, is not going to offer any rebuttals of himself. Yet, one can’t deny that this book is a great source that future writers and historians can quote from, but it’s not really something one can call an “entertaining” read. Plenty of historical biographies and autobiographies are fun, insightful reads. This, however, is not one of them.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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