Two old men, whose stories intersect at crucial points in their history, narrate this novel. They are men on opposite sides of the political poles, both Cuban. One, Goyo, has been a successful expatriate, living in Florida since the Revolution, running a successful Cuban diner, investing in real estate and various business ventures. The other, identified throughout simply as El Comandante, needs no further description: a fictionalized Fidel Castro himself.
Both men are on a slippery slide towards death and they know it; both have certain objectives they want to realize before the end. Goyo has decided that he can redeem himself and his checkered past of countless loves, wives and mistresses, a son lost to drug addiction and mental illness, real estate that is literally crumbling, in only one way: revenge. His goal is to assassinate the great leader or to live to the day where he sees him die, even if it means outliving him only by a few minutes.
El Comandante, on his side, though he has handed off a lot of his power to his brother, is still very active behind the scenes, between health crises of various sorts. He does not want to admit that the sixty-year revolution is at an end, or that it has failed in any way to deliver on its promises to the Cuban people. He too has had a rich and varied love life, but has mostly failed to recognize the offspring he has produced with multiple women.
Both men are driven to their inexorable end and we track their progress through a three-month period of July through September. We are forced to recognize similarities between them, and ways their lives and conduct overlap. There is also a personal vendetta operating here as El Comandante lured away the great love of Goyo’s life, Adelina, and then abandoned her and her child. Goyo now blames himself for not forgiving her: the sexual magnetism and charisma of his adversary being generally accepted truths.
Garcia intersperses comments in the form of footnotes throughout the story and lets us hear the voices of the common people who comment on various conditions of Cuban life: coffee adulterated with chickpeas; melted Chinese condoms used as “cheese” on pizzas; mop threads, battered and breaded, sold as fried steaks; ground grapefruit rinds masquerading as beef. It’s evident that people have rarely had enough to eat and have suffered through unremitting poverty.
The climax is unexpected in some ways and very powerful. The two old men are no more. Only their legacies remain. How we arrive at this point is often studded with wry humor: the old men beset by inconvenient fainting spells, digestive problems, car accidents, near drowning in a swamp, being set on fire, rained on by bullets.
Perhaps the scene that etches itself most deeply in the reader’s mind is the one where El Comandante visits prisoners on a hunger strike. He proceeds to set a full table of delicacies for them and then sits down to a multi-course gourmet meal, relishing every bite. The prisoners, weakened though they are, do not break down; they accept only a cigar at the end. But the joy and satisfaction El Comandante experiences in playing with their lives is chilling. Any doubts about his concern for the people of Cuba vanish in this portrayal, and we are reminded, as he reminisces, of the many times in the past he delighted in executing so-called enemies of the state.
Garcia makes her point of view very clear: this is a man who cares nothing for others and is motivated by a worship of power alone. He is a megalomaniac with outsized delusions of grandeur:
“But to El Lider, God remained an elaborate fiction, at least the God of his Latin-spouting Jesuit teachers. If, as they’d maintained, every man was made in His image, why not simply to a step further and become Him? After all, the tyrant hadn’t merely survived, he’s lived – flauntingly, outrageously, in the shadow of an imperial power bent on his destruction for the better part of adjoining centuries. If that didn’t qualify him for deification, nothing could.”
Garcia, a professor of literature and creative writing with six novels to her name, has constructed a very tight plot, given her characters real dimensionality, and crafted a finale that can only be interpreted as a fervent wish-fulfillment for the multitudes of Cuban exiles forced to flee their country more than half a century ago.