Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara – the anticapitalist crusader whose face adorns a million t-shirts – had a vision for a “New Man” unburdened by history in his effort to build a more egalitarian world. His conviction was that these men would lead the way to the future and that everyone else would fall into line, either through fear or devotion. The Argentine “harsh angel” (a moniker coined by the ever-insightful journalist Alma Guillermoprieto) found his greatest success in Cuba, joining with a once-failed insurrectionist named Fidel Castro to pull off one of the most improbable and era-defining coups of the 20th-century.
The ambivalence of life in power did not suit him. An ardent believer in the curative power of violence, Guevara set off to spark new revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, the latter being the place where the CIA finally caught their boogeyman in 1967. Much of Call Me Cassandra, by award-winning Cuban novelist, poet, and architect Marcial Gala, is set two decades later in a military camp in the arid Angolan countryside as a new generation of Cuban kids continued Guevara’s internationalist mission by fighting the apartheid South African army. The righteousness of the Cuban cause – only when compared to the alternative – is betrayed by its soldiers’ actions.
“They all think of themselves as heroes, even the most abusive ones,” Cassandra, the titular character, notices.
She is born with a gift that doubles as a curse. Her ability to see the future of everyone around her – family, classmates, and fellow soldiers on the front – isolates her. Not that anyone believes her visions, but they see that there is something ‘strange’ about her and resent her for her difference. The character also happens to be trans.
The character goes by many names throughout the novel. She thinks of herself as a reincarnation of Cassandra, the Trojan princess of Greek myth who prophesied that her brother’s love for Helen would trigger a brutal war leading to the fall of their kingdom. Her given name, a deadname, in this case, is Raul. The people around her that love her most call her Rauli, a sweet and gender-ambiguous diminutive. Her mother calls her Nancy, the name of a beloved dead aunt in whose dresses she discovers her identity and whose role the character ends up embodying in her mother’s eyes.
From the members of the Cuban battalion fighting a war 6,000 miles from home against American-equipped forces defending colonial power, she hears the names Marilyn Monroe and Olivia Newton-John hurled as insults. These glamorous women are evoked to humiliate a character who doesn’t meet the masculine standard in the setting where it has been most traditionally demanded. Revolutions create new orthodoxies but keep some of the old ones when they suit the leader’s purposes. In both pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba, unyielding machismo was an inevitable fact of life.
The reason for Cassandra’s conscription is an “extra inch” – in height. This arbitrary biological detail will result in her death. She watches her fate develop knowing there is nothing she can do to change the outcome, which somehow makes the impending tragedy more tolerable. This is largely due to Gala’s breathtaking control of tone from sentence to sentence. One moment you are angry, the next you are laughing, and then you start to see a hint of beauty in a desperate situation.
War necessarily involves death, and Cassandra has the unenviable knowledge of whom will not come back. “He would have been an actor, but the fates decreed his life would be cut short here in Angola, so far from Havana’s theaters. He sings without a care now, not suspecting that it is a song of mourning.” The life of the soldier she kills in battle also flashes before her eyes. He is a white South African with a Dutch last name, a lover of Led Zeppelin, the son of a farmer. A man – like countless others on battlefronts around the world – forced by cruel circumstances to die far from home on behalf of more powerful men’s ideologies.
Away from the battlefield, the bookish Cassandra writes letters to the mothers of many Cuban soldiers killed in action. The battalion’s unnamed captain then commands that she change from uniform to women’s clothing. She has no choice but to comply with his military orders. “He dresses me like a woman and he hits me in the gut and then says it’s because he loves me.” The captain demands her silence, knowing that his status is tied to no one finding out about their violent bond.
From brutal scenes at both the battlefield and the camp, the reader is transported to Cassandra’s childhood and adolescence in the southern Cuban seaport of Cienfuegos. The transitions are as natural as the one gentle wave leading to the next on a Caribbean beach. Even as a child, Cassandra rejects the oppressive constraints that dictate male existence in the country despite her father’s best efforts. She knows it is not for her. “I would have liked to be my father’s daughter, then I wouldn’t have to wear olive green, learn to use a rifle, board a ship and then go off to the border of the Old World,” she muses.
A fitting tribute to the tenacious and brilliant gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), Call Me Cassandra repurposes an age-old myth to meld together a bitter war tale, a trans coming-of-age story, and a drama of a family splitting at the seams. The novel unravels the revolutionary dream of a utopian future over the course of its nonlinear storyline. “I always thought this wasn’t the right place for you,” a fellow soldier contemplates with Cassandra in her final hours, “but it isn’t the right place for any of us.”
In Call Me Cassandra, Gala dismantles the binaries that suffocate the region while confirming his standing as one of the most inventive new voices in contemporary Latin American fiction.
Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. Penguin Random House. Republished 2020.
Guillermoprieto, Alma. Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America. Penguin Random House. 2002.