Despite their sworn hatred for each other, the two old men at the heart of Cristina García’s hilarious and often touching sixth novel, “King of Cuba,”have a number of things in common. They share a long list of physical ailments and are related to swarms of clueless well-wishers, but more than anything else, they cling to a common dream: They each pine for a redemptive legacy. On one side is Goyo Herrera, who lives in exile in Miami; on the other is Cuban dictator El Comandante — a cleverly fictionalized Fidel Castro.
Goyo imagines “Here Lies a Cuban Hero” etched on his headstone, and despite mounting despair, El Comandante believes he deserves the same inscription. By shuttling her narrative between these two old warriors, García, whose first novel, “Dreaming in Cuban,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, creates a bittersweet story whose power far outweighs its simple structure.
Both Goyo and El Comandante have bright memories of the days before the Revolution 60 years ago, and both have had to live with a long accretion of disappointments ever since. For 80-something Goyo, the main disappointment is his 60-
something son, Goyito, an oafish drug addict who’s constantly messing up his own life. El Comandante also has family woes, including his good-natured brother Fernando, who’s enamored of Rolexes, golf and hot tubs (“Some Communist ideologue he’d turned out to be”). But El Comandante’s main regret is the sloth and petty crime that have worked their way into his perfect socialist paradise. The members of the rising generation “expect to survive without working — and moreover, feel entitled to not working.” The fact that his approaching 89th birthday will be celebrated with a staging of “Bay of Pigs: The Musical!” isn’t lifting his spirits, either.
As this antic story develops, Goyo, who’d “had to parcel out his grief judiciously, or he would’ve died from it long ago,” hatches a plan to kill El Comandante during his next speech at the United Nations. García clearly intends us to feel both sides of this drama equally, but in perhaps the novel’s sharpest irony, El Comandante steals our sympathies. The portrait García paints of him —nostalgic but utterly unsentimental, evil but magnetic — is the best thing she’s ever written, a pitch-perfect study of tyranny in winter. “We must make our peace with the necessity of dying,” he tells a group of hunger-striking dissidents in the book’s most morally complicated chapter. “But remember this: you won’t create a new solar system in which I am not the sun. Even after I’m gone, the heat of my presence will be felt.”
Like it or not, that heat — and not Goyo’s doomed heroism — is this great book’s lasting impression.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
Cristina García will be at the National Book Festival on the Mall on Sept. 21.