From Socialist Voice, May 2010

Book review

A novel that celebrates Cuban resistance

Tomás Mac Síomóin, Ceallaigh: Scéal ón mBlárcatha (Dublin: Coiscéim, 2010; €10).

Cuba’s fight for freedom in the nineteenth century and its continuing struggle in the present to defend its independence is at the heart of a new novel by Tomás Mac Síomóin, which was launched recently by the Cuban ambassador, Teresita Trujillo.
     While the Cuban people are the heroes of the work, the two main characters are Irish journalists, two genuine seekers after truth in a well-disgraced profession. One of the characters is an actual historical person, James J. O’Kelly, who worked with the New York Herald and who is much better remembered in Cuba today than in Ireland. He reported on the Ten Years’ War of 1868–1878, when the Cubans rose against Spanish domination and managed to break through the “paper wall” whereby what was happening in Cuba was hidden from the outside world. Mac Síomóin in a prologue makes the direct connection between the events of that decade and the victory of the popular forces in 1959. “Aithnítear gurb é an Cogadh Deich mBliain a las an tine bheo.” [It is recognised that it was the Ten Years’ War that lit the living flame.]
     The second character is one Séamas S. Ó Ceallaigh, who is sent to Cuba by his right-wing editor in Dublin to send back a series of articles on the “dictatorship,” repression of dissidents, poverty, a dysfunctional system, etc., etc. (See the daily and Sunday papers for other well-worn lines in the litany.) The fictional Ó Ceallaigh (who bears an uncanny likeness to the author) discovers a different Cuba and a different reality from the proposed story. The country that is described (or, more accurately, describes itself) through interviews, conversations and experiences—none of which, one feels, are really fictional—is a seriously democratic national community working hard to build a socialist revolution in a context of constant economic and diplomatic warfare waged by the United States.
     The Cuba of Ó Ceallaigh is not Heaven on Earth, or anything like it. The relative poverty, by European standards, is noted; but it is suggested that the real comparison should be with Haïti, Guatemala, or Honduras. Ó Ceallaigh / Mac Síomóin records the complaints of dissidents of different kinds, including people who find the economic siege personally difficult, some would-be exploiters, and not a few begrudgers.
     Tourists also figure in the work, especially the kind who have their minds made up that Cuba is backward and downtrodden but is worth a cheap holiday. In one scene the author records a cacophony of ignorant insults on a Havana–Madrid flight because the take-off is delayed. “You wouldn’t expect punctuality in Cuba”; “Every one of them is in a bad way, except for those that have relatives in Europe or the United States”; “A shower of beggars, all of them.” This is backed up by references to prostitutes (a subject not ignored in the book) and sneers at negritas. They even get a racist guffaw out of the fact that the pilot has a Basque name. “Píolóta de chuid ETA atá ar dtiomáint!” [One of ETA’s pilots is driving us!]
     Then a middle-aged woman stands up and refers to her terminally ill daughter seated beside her. She says she has been to Cuba for a second opinion, because the high standard of medicine in Cuba makes it the obvious place to bring her child.
     There is a constant swing in the novel from the experiences of O’Kelly in the 1870s to those of Ó Ceallaigh in the 2000s, and the author’s use of the first person requires a mental shift in the alert reader.
     On the face of it, the two episodes blended together seem to belong to different worlds, but the connection is the understanding that both quasi-fictional Irish journalists have of the libertarian nature of the two Cuban movements and, in the case of the current struggle, the essential unity of the fight for national sovereignty and the development of socialism.
     Of course, the values expressed in the novel are universal. Mac Síomóin observes: “Nach iontach go deo an cumas ag an ní neamhbheo mothúcháin shuanmhara a chur ina ndúiseacht? An fhuil a chur ag coipeadh sna cuisleanna—nó a cheansú. An suaimhneas anama a ghineann fothram tomhaiste brachlainní ag briseadh ar dhuirling, cantaireacht na n-éan ar bhóithrín tuaithe san earrach, siollaí maorga Beethoven, baslóga ag borradh ar chraobhacha. Na taibhsí a dhúisíonn dathanna luaineacha an duilliúir sa bhfómhar. Radharc ar bhratach náisiúnta. Ar thírdhreachanna áirithe. Ar fhothrach seaneaglaise . . .” [Isn’t it wonderful the way an inanimate thing can awaken somnolent emotions? To send the blood rushing through the veins—or to calm it. The peace of soul that is generated by the measured noise of breakers beating on a stony beach, the singing of birds on a country bóithrín in the spring, the stately sounds of Beethoven, buds sprouting on branches. The ghosts that lighten up the fluctuating colours of the leaf in the autumn. The sight of a national flag. Of certain landscapes. Of the ruins of an old church . . .]
     And then the author, in a way, breaks the lyrical mood by adding, “Ar mhaiseite i gcófra gloine iarsmalainne!” [Of a machete in a glass museum case!]—the Cuban version of the pike in the thatch, a banal weapon ennobled into a symbol of resistance. The resistance continues.

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