[13 May 2002]
“If anyone believes that our smiles involve abandonment of the teaching of Marx, Engels, and Lenin he deceives himself poorly. Those who wait for that must wait until a shrimp learns to whistle.
—Nikita Khrushchev (1955)
Carlos Manuel is a high-ranking officer in the Cuban Intelligence Service who has dedicated 25 years of his life to The Revolution. But now he’s fallen on hard times. His wife committed suicide. He has been brought back from Africa to a forced retirement. His children don’t want him in the apartment. Then things really fall apart. While trying to save his children from their own folly in an ill-planned boat escape to America, he ends up, quite by accident, in the USA. The CIA and FBI are all atwitter because they think they’ve got a high-level defector, but they can’t find him. The Cubans, too, are horrified because they think a high-level intelligence officer has defected. But they can’t find him either.
And there follows the gist of the story, one heck of a manhunt involving the CIA, FBI, and a variety of incomprehensible Cuban agencies and military organizations all of whom blunder about irrationally. Carlos, using a combination of skill and opportunity, changes his identity more frequently than the average adult male changes his underwear. While John Wilkinson and hiding in Vermont, Carlos teaches his landlady’s abusive fella a few things about good manners, then slips back to Cuba through Toronto while the feds are looking for him in Texas. Back in Cuba, some want to drop the matter, and some want to string Carlos up for treason.
About this point, the reader learns for certain what has long been suspected, that his main CIA antagonist, Timothy Sidney King, is in this manhunt for personal reasons. Long ago Carlos put a bomb under King’s bed and blew his manly paraphernalia through the roof. King, determined to have his vengeance, isn’t about to let Carlos escape. So, to force Carlos’ return to America, he arranges the kidnapping of Carlos’ daughter. Under indictment in Cuba, wanted in America, his daughter held by the evil empire, Carlos does the logical thing: he drowns in a fishing accident. The dental records prove that beyond doubt even if the rest of the body is badly nibbled by communist fish.
Tim King doesn’t believe a bit of it, and neither does the reader. There are too many loose ends. In Vermont, where the new girlfriend is left mystified by the handsome stranger who has disappeared. In Florida, where the Cuban exile community is miffed for having been deceived by Tim. In Alabama, where Carlos’s daughter is held by CIA hirelings who increasingly suspect things are going very wrong. Too, the sagacious reader observes that there is about a third of the novel left and thinks, ‘I bet things are going to get really messy’. How true! The author, Arnaldo Correa, employs all the usual gimmicks of the genre, and adds a few new ones. He easily and convincingly handles computers and electronic surveillance. He knows how to trace identities as well as how to evade being traced. He uses his technical knowledge, and his knowledge of Cuba and America, to spin a surprisingly captivating yarn that is reminiscent of John Le Carré at his best.
But Arnaldo Correa is not John Le Carré, and that is just as well. For starters, Correa is writing in, for him, a foreign language, which means that he is always comprehensible, while Le Carré is sometimes deliberately and charmingly incomprehensible. Correa’s writing flows nicely but there are places where it reads like a police report. The facts, ma’am, just the facts. Now and then, the events just are not accounted for by the available facts while some of the complicated machinations test the credulity of the reader not to mention some of the characters themselves. Le Carré would camouflage such flaws with a ‘stream of consciousnesss’ excursion that would leave the reader wondering what happened but certain that something did. Correa just doesn’t have that tool in his kit.
The reader will have to live with these minor faults because Correa’s novel is about other, more important things. Correa is no hack churning out another spy novel. He is a Cuban who has spent at least some of his life praising Castro and much of it working in far flung places in the cause of The Revolution. His subtext is political, and his portrait of Cuban-American intelligence relations is not pretty. But as Correa observes, America is in a confrontation with a rival that no longer exists. It’s over, for God’s sake, let’s kiss and make-up.
Well, no it isn’t overé. The Cuban exile community, unified in its opposition to communism, possesses a political power out of all proportion to its size. Accommodation would be its ruin. Then, too, the Cuban-American conflict long ago became personal, a war between the strangest of bedfellows on both sides. In both countries, the antagonists have too often come unstrung. They are mad as hatters. According to Correa, the personal part of the conflict will be passed on from one generation of lunatics to the next. A hundred years from now, we’ll still hate each other though nobody will be able to remember why. If there is even a grain of truth in Correa’s analysis, it is enough to scare the thoughtful American pink and purple. Political conflicts are bad enough. When they are personal wars among maniacs, they are worse still.
Correa’s Spy’s Fate is a must for any spy novel enthusiast. Beyond this, the book is an important political statement, and being written in a Cuban voice, it is an amazing one. It will interest anyone concerned with Cuban-American relations, with the intelligence community here, there or anywhere, or with international diplomatic relations, real or fictional. Its release when Americans have just been informed that Cuba is, yes indeed, part of the ‘axis of evil’ could hardly be more timely.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/spys-fate/