Sunday, November 17, 2013

Castro by Reinhard Kleist

"In taking power, the revolutionary also takes on the injustices of power". Reinhard Kleist could have hardly found a more apt preface to his brilliant semi-biographical graphic novel Castro than this quote by Mexican author Octavio Paz.

Kleist, a German author and artist whose Johnny Cash biography I see a darkness has won numerous awards and received Harvey and Eisner nominations, came first upon the idea of chronicling the life of the ‘Maximo Lider’ after visiting Cuba, the experiences of which he recorded in another graphic novel (Havanna). Assisted by Castro biographer Volker Skierka, he has created a sweeping graphic novel that chronicles the life of Cuban revolutionary leader and long-time president Fidel Castro. Along the way we get to know when and why Castro first came into conflict with the different American puppet regimes in Cuba, his motivations for eventually becoming a revolutionary, as well as his life as President of Cuba.

An old and worn down Castro - a far cry from the young, idealistic revolutionary
The book is divided into three chapters, with chapter 1 forming a contrast to the remaining two. In this chapter, Castro is in the foreground - it deals with his life before becoming a revolutionary and the struggle to overturn the Cuban regime. While the situation in Cuba is complicated (amongst other things we find several different political factions, coup d’états, a US-controlled puppet regime, the Mafia and the influence of United Fruit Company), his life is rather straightforward and at the center of the narrative. Once in power (chapters 2 and 3), the political situation within Cuba becomes more simple, but Castro's life as a political leader is now much more complicated. Planned invasions by the US, trade embargoes, the Cold War and assassination attempts on his life are just a few of the things that he now has to deal with. This complexity is in itself contrasted again by his stubbornness and inability to accept defeat: although poverty and hunger are spreading in post-revolution Cuba, things still seem simple for Castro - just adhere to the principles of the revolution and everything will turn out fine. As a logical consequence, this 'removal' from reality leads to Castro being removed as the main protagonist in the last two chapters. In the end, Castro almost seems to be a tragic hero who starts off with the best of intentions but ultimately fails because of his own flaws - the "injustices of power" indeed.

Assassination attempts as a form of comic relief
Castro is told from hindsight by German reporter Karl Mertens, a fictional character Kleist introduces. This fictional element proves to be an advantage of the book compared to a prose biography, as it enables Kleist to look at the ordinary lives in Cuba under Castro's regime - something he could not do by only looking at the 'Commandante en Jefe' himself who becomes more and more removed from the everyday life and troubles of ordinary Cubans.

This is just one example of several which show that Kleist keeps a healthy distance from Castro and the legends which surround him.

Another such example can be found in the first chapter. Here, Mertens pieces together Castro's early life by interviewing his comrades and friends. It turns out, however, that Mertens cannot always be trusted. Juan, one of his closest allies, at one point talks about the rising influence of the Mafia in Havana after General Batista's coup d’état. Among the Mafiosi mentioned by Juan, Mertens includes Michael Corleone - the fictional protagonist from The Godfather. This can be seen as a sign for Castro's life itself having been partly fictionalised and turned into a legend, as well as Mertens himself beginning to fall for this legend of the ‘Maximo Lider’. 

Huh? What is the guy from The Godfather doing here?
Showing his skills as a narrator, Kleist cleverly uses contrasts between his artwork and text in some instances. While Castro talks about his plans for attacking a military garrison and how it will trigger a revolution, the accompanying pictures show the horrible failure of the attempt. The text in the last panel of this sequence reads "I suggest July 26 to be the day of our victory" while the art shows Batista's soldiers executing the remaining revolutionaries. Castro himself then is not always reliable - a foreshadowing of his presidency later on.

Kleist employs black and white artwork that focuses on the important aspects. His portrayals of Castro or Guevara are highly realistic, which adds to the overall feeling of authenticity. Art that depicts people this realistically can often be static, looking as if the artist just copied photographs and in doing so interrupting the narrative flow of a story. Not so with Castro, where the art is vivid and fluid.

With Castro Reinhard Kleist has created a highly entertaining graphic novel that transcends the genre of biographies and in doing so is more revealing about Fidel Castro's Cuba than any non-fictional work could ever be.

You can also check out this interview with Kleist on Castro:

This review is based on the original German version of Castro.                                                      
Castro is published by SelfMadeHero | £14.99 | ISBN 13: 9781906838324)

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