33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

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Translated by Howard Curtis

Reviewed by Annabel

Canek Sánchez Guevara was Che Guevara’s grandson. Was, because he died in early 2015 from complications after a heart operation – he was only forty, which means he never met his grandfather either, who was executed in Bolivia in 1967.

Sánchez Guevara grew up in Cuba living under the rule of the man he knew as ‘Uncle Fidel’ but grew disillusioned with Castro’s rule (and he felt the burden of being labelled ‘Che’s grandson’). Aged 22, he exiled himself, later settling in Mexico. He was a musician – a guitarist in a punk metal band, and journalist, working for some of Mexico’s most important newspapers – he had a regular column called “Motorcycleless Diaries”.

Presumably, Sanchez Guevara wrote this little book shortly before he died. In a scant 75 or so pages, he gives us a portrait of contemporary life in Cuba and the disillusionment seen through the eyes of a young, black Cuban man.

The cover shows us a record player with an lp playing, the Cuban flag on the label. We’ll never get to hear whether it’s playing mambo or the cha-cha-cha though, for this record is stuck, destined to repeat itself over and over without progressing – this is Sanchez Guevara’s metaphor for Cuban politics – ‘like a scratched record’.

This refrain, rather like Kurt Vonnegut’s comment on death in Slaughterhouse 5, ‘So it goes,’ is a mantra that pervades each of the 33 vignettes that make up this story, this quote from the first:

Everyone talks at the same time (twenty scratched records playing at the same time): they all say the same thing in different words, like when they’re standing in line or at a meeting – an obsession with talking: twelve million scratched records blathering on without stopping. The whole country is a scratched record (everything repeats itself: every day is a repetition of the day before, every week, month, year; and from repetition to repetition, the sound deteriorates until all that is left is a vague, unrecognizable recollection of the original recording – the music disappears, to be replaced by an incomprehensible, gravelly murmur). … It’s always the same. Like a scratched record, always repeating itself…

It’s fitting that the hero of the book has his awakening via the power of reading –

…he had discovered a private universe much vaster than the one around him. That was when everything started to seem like a scratched record.

Being model Cuban citizens was enough for his parents, who met during the early days and fervour of the revolution. Working as a drudge in a dead-end office job, not being allowed to think for himself, is no longer enough for this young man. His father despises his burgeoning intellectual capacity describing intellectuals as, ‘deviationists! – people who suffered from the original sin: lack of revolutionary spirit.’ Eyes opened though, each day he sees new failures, new scratches on the record. He resolves to escape, along with many other young people fleeing the island on any floating vessel they can find.

The prose is sultry, tropical, laced with rum – more like a prose poem than a novel.  – yet Cuba is no tropical paradise, it is a troubled island whose brand of Communism is daily failing.

My only previous knowledge about Cuba’s history was writing an essay on the Cuban Missiles Crisis at uni for my modern history elective during my science degree (we had to take one non-science course – I chose post-WWII history) but that didn’t get me close to understanding normal Cuban life at all. In recent years, we have seen Cuba begin to open up to tourism – Havana is quite the holiday destination. Ry Cooder’s 1997 album The Buena Vista Social Club, recorded with many veteran Cuban musicians, ignited our interest in their style of world music too – but this is mere gloss.

As we’ve seen from the recent reporting of the death of Fidel Castro and the tour of his ashes around the country, Cuba was still under his spell. Fidel’s brother Raúl, who became Cuba’s president in 2008 accepted overtures from Obama and Pope Francis – the first steps towards rapprochement with the West. However, Raúl has said he will not seek re-election in 2018, what will happen next? Cuba remains a complicated neighbour for American diplomats…

Forgive me from digressing from this novella. In Richard Curtis’s translation, it is a stylish and poetic story that highlights the plight of a disaffected generation that want to move on. Utterly worth reading.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Canek Sánchez Guevara, 33 Revolutions (Europa Editions, 2016) ISBN 978-1609453480, paperback, 128 pages.

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