Reviewed by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67)
Idealism fitted to pragmatism, with the inevitable conundrums and conflicts for balance in the personal as in revolution, is the bedrock of John Thorndike’s novel A Hundred Fires in Cuba.
The novel is a love story. Camilo Cienfuegos is a real historical person, and Clare is a fictional American photographer and mother of Cienfuego’s (which translates as a hundred fires) illegitimate daughter. Clare is the passionate flame of their affair; Camilo’s passion is the Cuban revolution. As one of Castro’s main comandantes, he was appointed, after the fall the dictator Batista, head of the national army, a conglomerate of ragged rebels and Batista’s defeated troops.
Camilo and Clare’s affair began in New York, where Camilo, an illegal, worked in a restaurant’s kitchen. He was deported without knowing Clare was pregnant. She heard nothing from him and assumed he was dead, perhaps killed in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. She went to Cuba on a magazine assignment, met a charming and wealthy Cuban, married, and settled in Havana. There, in the final days of the battle for Cuba, she learned that Camilo was alive and fighting with Castro.
Was she to tell her husband that the flame of her heart was an important part of the force central to the new alignment between capitalism and socialism in Cuba? When should she tell her two-year-old daughter about her father? Quandaries between the idealism of truth and the pragmatism of real life are themes Thorndike explores throughout the novel.
Thorndike’s prose, crisp and nuanced without depending on adjectives and nary an adverb on the page, creates a fast moving narrative that plunges you directly into the story. His mastery of the historical background and the details of Cuban life give the story veracity.
Idealism and pragmatism were very much part of daily life for Cubans, as I discovered while living in Cuba researching a book. With my friend Jose, I traveled the island from tip to tip, stopping to visit his friends along the way. For the most part, the people believed in the idealism of the revolution, but they were tired of Fidel and his heavy hand. “He’s like an old grandfather afraid for his virginal granddaughter,” I was told. “He needs to relax his grip and trust us more.”
Part of the Cubans daily pragmatism, besides repairing their 1950s American cars with scavenged tractor parts, was to speak of Fidel in ways not to attract attraction, like miming combing a beard instead of using his name when being critical. The hip-hop musicians (I was writing about the influence of music on Cuban society) were bold in their lyrics. They didn’t want to overthrow the Revolution, as one explained, only to change it for the better—like confronting the racism against dark-skinned Cubans.
Thorndike addresses the dilemma ancient Greeks wrote about, Jesus preached about, and today’s universities teach in ethic classes: Greater benefit for the whole vs individual gratification. Wear a Covid mask or not?
Thorndike makes the choice personal for Clare: Join the Revolution’s new order and have an affair with Camilo or stay in the old order security with her wealthy husband for her daughter’s sake?
For Camilo, he hates the swift “justice” of the Revolution’s tribunals, but has to attend the executions in his role representing the State. Can he serve the Revolution and be a family man? Serving the ideals of the Revolution could lead to personal disaster. Is there such a thing as pragmatic idealism? Where are the lines between prudent collaboration, collusion, and complicity? How does a person decide? Thorndike raises issues pertinent in his own country today.
In the novel, Thorndike keeps the reader thoroughly engaged with the characters, without obscuring them in the overarching principles. That’s his gift as a storyteller. You want to know what happens to the people. Clare and Camilo struggle in their flash/bang relationship. Their daughter inflicts her will upon them, as a three-year old can do so well. Clare’s husband and Camilo have an open confrontation over Clare, and nationalism at the expense of the wealthy landowners. Fidel and the Revolution hover in the background, but always intruding.
Fact: Camilo Cienfuegos was presumed dead when the small plane he was in, a Cessna 310, disappeared on October 10, 1959, on a flight from Camaguey to Havana. He and Raul, Fidel’s brother, had been in a bitter rivalry and suspicions were aroused, but the undiscovered crash was accepted as an accident.
Fiction: The ideals of the revolution, and the dictates of Castro, forced Clare’s husband to leave Cuba for Miami. Clare was thrown out of Cuba. Camilo lived.
Thorndike follows Mark Twain’s dictum: Don’t let truth ruin a good story. Remember, this is a love story, with a happy ending, and a surprise twist. After all, Thorndike is a skilled novelist.
Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965-67) is the author of numerous nonfiction and fiction books, including Waking Up in Cuba (the Dancing with Fidel edition sold out.). His latest mystery, Stealing Fortune’s Brick, the Audacious Tea Heist, was published in July, 2020.