- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

When it comes to a romantic revolutionary, few figures can rival Che Guevara. An architect of the Cuban Revolution, he was a passionate idealist, a thinker, a doctor, and a doer. He inspired admiration from followers, and fear from his foes. (He was killed at the hands of the CIA in 1967.) His picture has become an image for revolutionaries — real or faux — everywhere.

This is also the image we see of Che Guevara in Ana Menendez’s artful first novel “Loving Che,” which portrays the iconic revolutionary as adored and romanticized, intense and complex. Ultimately, in an appropriate twist, he is also the embodiment of the conundrum between what is fact and what is fiction, what is remembered and what is simply imagined.

In her short story collection “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd,” Miss Menendez, herself the daughter of Cuban expatriates, writes about families living in the limbo world of exile. “Loving Che” also centers on a family rent apart by exile. The novel’s central character, a narrator who goes nameless, is whisked from Cuba as an infant by her grandfather, and escorted to Miami, estranged from the rest of her family and uncertain of its whereabouts.

Growing up in the Miami suburbs, she knows nothing about her own origins, including her parentage. As a young woman, she finally musters both the courage and the anger to ask her grandfather about her mother. Haltingly, he tells her of their escape from Cuba.

The narrator’s mother, he explains, had requested that he take her daughter away. He shows her the poem her mother had pinned to her as a baby. But he leaves more questions than answers. What ensues is an initial quest — fruitless — on the part of the narrator to locate her mother, Teresa, in Havana.

Years later, the narrator receives a package of photographs and letters in the mail, and this is the ticket to coming to terms with her origins. Rather than an apology to her daughter for shipping her off, Teresa’s letters are the story of her own life and, more interestingly, her love affair with Che Guevara.

They are a passionate, electrifying glimpse into a country transformed by a sole, sweeping event (the Cuban Revolution), and an individual transformed by a sweeping love affair.

Miss Menendez’s writing here is at its finest — stark and yet evocative, especially when Teresa reflects on history, writing, and memory: “This is when I began to wonder if perhaps the outer world was no more real than our imagination and all its thrashings but a mirror of our own thoughts. And I wonder if our recorded history isn’t like this, if our idea of history isn’t another way of saying an idea of ourselves.”

But her own history is what Teresa attempts to tell her daughter. Teresa chronicles her childhood in Havana; she loves Havana in the early morning, and hates school. She roams the streets, entranced by their liveliness. She marries, becomes an artist, and watches as Cuba is seized by the revolution and its torrent of revolutionaries.

She is unmoved by the revolution itself, but later becomes enthralled by Che, the paragon revolutionary. Her letters tell of the plodding build-up to their affair, and its sizzling consummation. Sprinkled among the letters are photographs: Che on the radio. Che drinking tea. Che in disguise. These photos appear directly in the book’s main text, to the delight of any reader interested in seeing Che’s famous youthful smile and shaggy hair.

They also serve as a reminder that Che was, indeed, a living human being, not just an image silk-screened on $10 t-shirts. With eerie precision, these letters also describe the living, breathing Ernesto Guevara (Che, his acquired nickname, is an Argentine expression meaning “hey you”).

Che is an impassioned lover. He reeks. He waxes poetically on art and politics and love and life. This Che — like, presumably, the real Che — is magnetic. And he is also a bundle of contradictions — a doctor who suffers from paralyzing asthma, a liberator and a womanizer, a steady lover and yet, of course, an unfaithful one. (Che, like Teresa, is married.)

The package of letters, which read as a self-contained story, prompts the narrator to continue anew her quest to find her mother. She finds herself back in Havana. In a way, Teresa eclipses the central narrator as the protaganist of this story. We do not know enough about the narrator — only a few parts that never come together to form a whole: that she is a keen observer, and an avid collector of photographs and nostalgia. We know that she is an anxious soul, and that she leads an inexplicably peripatetic lifestlye.

Havana and Miami, cities that now seem like twins separated at birth, are also vibrant characters in this book. Miss Menendez takes the reader through the twists of these two places whose fates are so intertwined. But fortunately, she does not romanticize one city at the expense of the other.

We feel the salt in the air in Havana. We see the city in its revolutionary heyday. And we see Miami, haunted by exiles, trapped in a different age: The city “seemed to me to be living in reverse,” the narrator tells us early on.

The Havana of today is similary caught, in a time stale from a stalled revolution. It will look familiar to any recent visitor: There are the stark poverty and rampant begging, but also French chain patisseries, Nikes, hidden satellite dishes, and hushed longings.

Only in the end, when the book seems hurried, does Miss Menendez’s writing sag, occasionally lapsing into cliches. But this is a rich, unpretentious book, with a series of lessons on the power — and impotence — of memory. It is a welcome debut; Miss Menendez’s voice is fresh, inviting, and original.

Carlyn Kolker is a reporter at American Lawyer magazine in New York City.

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