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Of story & satire: João Cerqueira on 'The Tragedy of Fidel Castro' (Q&A)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes João Cerqueira.

The author of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro (River Grove Books, $14.95), Mr. Cerqueira was born in Portugal and makes his home in Viano do Castelo. He has a PhD in art history from the University of Oporto and has written seven books of both fiction and non-fiction. His previous novels include Blame It on Too Much Freedom and Devil’s Observations; the author satirizes modern society by using humor and irony to inspire reflection and response.

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro was translated into English and published in America last December. The book’s accolades include a recent win in the Multicultural Fiction category of the 2014 Beverly Hills Book Awards (as well as being named a Finalist in the category of Literary Fiction) and being named an Award-Winner in the Fiction: Multicultural category of the of The 2013 USA Best Book Awards (as well as being named a Finalist in the Historical Fiction category), sponsored by USA Book News.

The book has also been met with acclaim from reviewers. The American Culture praised, “Novels like The Tragedy of Fidel Castro are the untamed musings of fiction that, unlike most other books, run wild and free, contemptuous of the confinement that the corral of ordinary classification would imprison them.” Further, Mark Spitzer, Toad Suck Review Editor and Professor of Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, noted, “The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a phantasmagoric odyssey through a highly imaginative prose universe of discovery and inquest. It's a magic realism hybrid of sacrificial lambs and Revolution, capitalistic decadence, and celestial consequence. I expect that this rich and unique narrative voice will illuminate a phosphorescent trajectory in the future annals of the New Millennial World Lit!"

From the publisher:

When God receives a request from Fátima to help prevent a war between Fidel Castro and JFK, he asks his son, Jesus, to return to Earth and diffuse the conflict. On his island, Fidel Castro faces protests on the streets and realizes that he is about to be overthrown. Alone, surrounded, and aware that the end is fast approaching, he plays his last card. Meanwhile, Christ arrives on Earth and teams up with Fátima, who is convinced she can create a miracle to avoid the final battle between JFK and Fidel Castro and save the world as we know it. At the end, something really extraordinary happens!

Humorous, rich with metaphor, and refreshingly imaginative, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro was chosen as the book-of-the-month and book-of-the-year by Os Meus Livros magazine.

Now, João Cerqueira takes readers inside The Tragedy of Fidel Castro

1) What inspired you to write THE TRAGEDY OF FIDEL CASTRO – and how do you feel that this work represents an evolution from your earlier books?

All of my books are reflections on modern society. I have seen Fidel Castro on television ever since I was a child. He really is a showman. His speeches are great lessons for any aspiring actors. But I don’t see him as David fighting Goliath (the USA) – he is the Goliath for his own people. Years later I went to Cuba on three occasions, and spoke to a lot of people. The scene in the book featuring demonstrations against the regime and throwing stones was told to me by Havana citizens who were there. They also told me the story of the execution of one of the nation’s heroes, General Arnaldo Ochoa (he is the inspiration for the character Camilo Ochoa, who owes his first name to Camilo Cienfuegos). Many Cubans believe that both Cienfuegos and Ochoa were killed because they wanted to overthrow Castro.

At the same time, I have always been intrigued by the Miracle of Fatima: the Virgin Mother and the angels descend from the heavens and reveal three secrets to three shepherd children – the description of hell, the end of communism and a third secret, which for a long time was believed to be the end of the world. In addition the Holy Virgin warned them that the sun would move on the 13th of October, 1917 and thousands of people travelled to Fátima and swore that they really did see it move. Then, as there was a prediction about the end of communism, the connection between the sun miracle and Fidel Castro became – in terms of literature – credible.

2) Tell us about the translation process and your involvement in that. Also, how has the book’s reception in America compared to that of a more global audience?

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro was my first experience of having my work translated. At first, I assumed that because they were English there would be little to discuss concerning the text to be translated, but then I realized that this is a very difficult and complex task, because, given the literary fiction I write, sometimes the meaning of some metaphors and other literary techniques can be misconstrued. On the other hand, as my book is a satirical work, transferring the humor into English was crucial – and this they managed quite well. In the end it was a fascinating process, in which I learnt a great deal and grew as a writer.

I had an amazing reception in America. I always dream big, but I hadn’t expected so much: The Tragedy of Fidel Castro has won two book awards, was considered the third best translation published in the US in 2012 by a magazine, one of the books of the year by two literary blogs, and is now on the short list for another prize. But I have also had good critics in the UK, India and Italy. Thanks to God, I suppose.

3) What are the challenges in fictionalizing such well known historical figures as JFK and Fidel Castro – and how do you endeavor to make both relatable, given their apparent philosophical differences?

The greatest challenge was to fictionalize Fidel Castro, the main character of the novel. As I wanted to create a complex character, I read his interviews and some of the books about him. The novel is a satire of the Cuban regime, but I gave him an opportunity to truly defend his revolution when he wrote his diaries. Here he points out the good things about Socialism and at the same time attacks Capitalism. I tried to write those diaries like a true Marxist, as honest as I could. Perhaps because of this some readers have said that I have made Castro too human – despite afterwards making a terrible pact with the devil. On the other hand, a Marxist reviewer claimed that I was confusing fiction with reality – of course she thinks that Cuba is more democratic than the US.

4) Though difficult to classify, there are definite elements of satire within the story. What is the importance of humor in writing – and how can it be used to dispel prejudice (thereby allowing readers to be more open-minded)?

My book is indeed a satire - a political and religious one. I am inspired both by George Orwell and by the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós. Animal Farm ridicules Communism. The mare Mollie, who refuses to stop wearing necklaces because she prefers the pleasures of consumerism to the revolution, shows how absurd classless society is.

Humor is certainly a weapon of massive destruction, but not to kill people. It only destroys stupidity. The Romans used to say Ridendo castigat mores (one corrects customs by laughing at them) and Voltaire wrote I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous’’. So, I used humor to show that religious or political dogmas always lead to fanaticism or dictatorship. Human beings are different from other animals because they have the ability to think, to question things and to laugh. That is why we have democracy and freedom - and some cultures do not. If you have a sense of humor, you’re much more able to accept the complexity of our world.

5) You do not shy away from taking on politics and religion. How are these topics used (or misused) similarly by leaders – and why do you believe they remain so divisive among people?

Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and a strong Catholic education have contributed to the use of politics and religion in my novels. Unfortunately, today religion is something that divides men, or even contributes to war and terror. And, then again, I think this can be related to humor – or the lack of humor. A religious fanatic is a person with no humor at all. Zero. But I am sure that God can take a joke – bears, children, wives, for example. The same happens with intelligent and confident people – they even can laugh at themselves. Stupid people don’t – so they became violent. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a fanatic monk killed because he fears humor. So, if all holy books had jokes, perhaps we’d live in a better world.

6) What lessons do you hope that readers might take away from your book and apply to everyday life?

That’s a tough question because my intention isn’t to give lessons to my readers. I want to make them think with their heads. But, if my novel were able to influence anyone, I hope that the lesson would be this: my life will be much better with humor (and this is free).

***

With thanks to João Cerqueira for his generosity of time and thought.

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