Review - The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, By Norberto Fuentes

Originally published in the Independent 8 February 2011

In February 2008, Fidel Castro announced his intention to step down as president of Cuba and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He wrote in his resignation letter: "I do not bid you farewell. My only wish is to fight as a soldier of ideas. I will continue to write under the title 'Reflections of Comrade Fidel'."

Given Castro's imprisonment and persecution of outspoken writers and journalists over 50 years, the irony of his statement was not lost on human-rights defenders. Cuban exile Norberto Fuentes takes Castro's literary pretensions as his central conceit in The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, first published in Spanish in 2004. Originally, this fictionalised autobiography ran to two volumes and 13 chapters, but in Anna Kushner's impressive English translation the book has been pared down.

Castro is renowned for having delivered some of the longest speeches in world history, so it is no mean feat that Fuentes impersonates his bombastic tone without boring us to tears. He illuminates the Cuban leader's pettier concerns through vivid descriptions of his political point-scoring, grandiose obsessions and macho posturing. On the subject of killing for the first time, Fuentes's Castro is particularly effusive as he explains how "killing ceases to be a moral problem and becomes a practical matter".

Fuentes has all the right credentials to pose as Castro, having served time in his inner-circle. He was privy to the work, wars and wiles of the comandante, until forced to flee to the US under threat of death.

There are some wonderfully playful moments in The Autobiography, such as when Castro is caught, quite literally, contemplating his cojones (testicles) or when he declares: "Sometimes it's hard for me to act like a professional soldier instead of the intellectual that I am." Fuentes also captures the Cuban leader's paranoia and his dislike of any rival. Following their first meeting in Mexico, Castro dismisses Che Guevara as "a little preppy looking for an adventure."

The book underscores the fact that, for most of his life, Castro's words or actions were politically motivated. We can never really know his innermost thoughts, his regrets and his true feelings. Fuentes has produced a fascinating portrait of one of the most controversial figures from the past century as well as a meticulously researched account of the Cuban revolution and its legacy.