Another comic to add to the burgeoning genre of what the French call BD reportage, or – less elegant in English – comic-book journalism, Reinhard Kleist’s graphic‑novel biography of Fidel Castro is, thankfully, no hagiography of the maximo lider. But neither does it present any sound explanation as to how the revolution soured. In this book, it simply happened, as – so the liberal imagination has it – all revolutions do.
Kleist is a German comic book artist whose previous foray into BD reportage, Havana, explored, as the introduction to the current volume puts it, ‘the daily life and difficult living conditions of primarily young Cubans living in an ... outdated model of Caribbean socialism.’
It is perhaps the worst sort of liberal conception of Cuba’s path, celebrating the heroic guerilla struggle uncritically and then damning what follows, without any exploration of why things developed as they did. There is no knowing irony when a character tells Castro: ‘Only you can lead the struggle to victory.’
This then flips over to an understandably bitter disillusion at what the revolution did to its writers and later its people in failing to deliver basic foods and consumer items. But there is never any discussion of why this happened. If anything, the blame appears to be placed at the feet of those pushing for farther-reaching changes, notably in the field of land reform, characters who are conflated with communists.
There is no discussion of guerrilla struggle as a strategy. The rebels just seem to win through sheer will. Suddenly Castro’s forces are victorious but there is no explanation of what tipped the balance of forces in their favour, or why this strategy worked in Cuba but not for Che in Bolivia or the Congo. It is also frequently confusing as to why characters do what they do. At one point Castro goes into exile in the US and it’s not clear exactly why.
However beautiful Kleist’s brushwork is and his impressive ability to capture Castro as he ages, there are better works out there exploring what went right and wrong in Cuba since 1959.
Leigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.