Book Notes: Zoe Valdes’s Novel about Batista

When I was a small child, I loved books about Lenin. Those were children’s books with short, simple stories about Lenin’s childhood that demonstrated how absolutely godlike he was in his perfection since birth. My parents didn’t buy dreck like that, so I once stole a couple of these books from a classroom library. They were like lives of saints adapted for very little kids. Lenin was a mix between Jesus and Santa, not that I knew who they were. For a child, it’s very soothing to read something with a 100% moral clarity on who the good guy – the only guy in the universe of such luminous, unmarred goodness – is.

Zoe Valdes is one of the writers of the Cuban Diaspora. Her most recent novel Pájaro lindo de la madrugá was supposed to offer a different perspective on Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator who lost to Fidel Castro and his guerrilla in 1959. I have absolutely nothing whatsoever against reading an alternative viewpoint on Batista. But this book is terrible, my friends. It’s horrid, horrific, atrocious, and ghastly. Those little books about Lenin from my Soviet childhood are true art compared to the garbage Valdes has excreted in this book.

Pájaro lindo de la madrugá is a mix between a gushing hagiography and a vulgar sentimental novel. Batista in this novel is Jesus, Santa, and Virgin Mary combined. Back when Stalin ordered a biography of himself, rewrote it by hand, printed millions of copies, and forced Soviet citizens to buy them, he managed to produce a more balanced, less vomit-inducing account of his own life than Valdes’s novel about Batista. This garbage is embarrassing to read. Batista is portrayed as a creature of unblemished perfection even in the saccharine scenes where he dumps his wife and the mother of his children for a random (and very young) girl he picks up on the street.

The characters in the novel frequently say things like, “Batista had one huge flaw. It was that he was too kind (too brilliant, too trusting, too sweet, too perfect), etc.” Parts of the novel read as copy-pasted pages from online encyclopedias. Others are cringeworthy scenes of Batista demonstrating his inhuman virtues.

I found two things of value in this painfully slow and plodding novel.

One is the correct observation that most of the anti-Batista sentiment in the pro-Soviet camp was based on his being “black.” That’s all we knew about him in the USSR. He was black. Meaning, eww, how nasty. Of course, if you find the pictures of him, you’ll see that he wasn’t even black. Batista was somewhat darker-skinned than Fidel. And Fidel deftly played on the Cubans’ quite extraordinary racism to reject Batista for his ‘blackness.’ (Cubans are, without a doubt, the most racist people on Earth by a wide margin. And it’s only gotten worse during the Castro times.)

Another useful thing in the book is the statement that Cuba’s tragedy is not economic but a moral one. That is absolutely true regarding every Socialist regime in history. (Neither Cuba nor the USSR ever managed to build Communism. They were Socialist countries in the classical sense). The USSR wasn’t terrible because there were no consumer goods and you had to hunt for a pound of butter for hours. That was bad but it’s so not the main problem. The absolute moral collapse in every possible way was what’s bad about the USSR. And it’s impossible to explain to anybody who hasn’t experienced it. This is why I am horrified by Cuba every time I visit. People have had their souls surgically removed. As a Soviet writer once said, Soviet people are primitive biological life forms. They are meat bags wrapped around nothingness.

These are two good things about the novel but now that I have told them to you, please abstain from reading. The torture to which Valdes subjects the Spanish language should be criminal.

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