With the last couple of books I’ve read in Spanish, I have wondered a little whether the reason I haven’t liked them is because they’re actually not that good or whether it’s because my Spanish hasn’t been up to the task. It was a relief, then, to find that I did really enjoy this one.
La pasión según Carmela is a historical novel spanning a number of years in the 1950s and 1960s in Cuba. It primarily follows two main characters – Ignacio, an Argentine economist, and Carmela, a Cuban neurosurgeon. Both of them join the guerrilla movement fighting to rid Cuba of the corrupt Batista dictatorship, and fall in love. Their initial joy at their 1959 victory progressively gives away as they realise that the new regime is not as perfect as they’d hoped it would be, and turns out to be very intolerant of dissent.
What I liked about this book is that it depicts the Cuban Revolution and ensuing government in a nuanced way. With English-language cultural output so dominated by the United States, most of the depictions of Cuba that we encounter are ridiculously one-sided “Castro bad, right-wing dictatorships perpetuating obscene levels of inequality good” or else they’re kind of the opposite, turning a blind eye to anything bad that might have happened since 1959 in Cuba because some leftists feel that any amount of criticism just gives succour to the US line. La pasión según Carmela doesn’t fall into that trap (surprisingly so, even, because when I looked up Marcos Aguinis he falls firmly into the neoliberal “centre-right” camp). Ignacio and Carmela are committed to the revolution and passionate about building a better world; their eventual disenchantment is not because they’ve become pro-capitalist nuts, but because their genuinely progressive opinions (e.g. horror at Stalinist-style purges of fellow revolutionaries; not supporting the oppression of LGBTI people; not supporting the prioritisation of rich tourists for healthcare over Cubans; trying to point out that crops have a certain maximum density of output they can produce and there’s no point just declaring they can produce more than that…) see them get into trouble. It’s worth noting, of course, that this dark history doesn’t invalidate everything that Cuba has achieved since 1959: it is one of the most developed, least unequal, and least “subject to religious-conservative oppression” countries in Latin America, with possibly the best healthcare system in all of the Americas, and has managed this in the face of a crippling US blockade. But neither do these achievements make that dark history OK.
So as a political person I enjoyed the book, but I’ve seen many reviews complaining that the romance isn’t very, uh, compelling to regular readers of romance, which is probably true. I’ve also seen people complaining about excessively florid prose, which I certainly did not notice in the Spanish, so that might be a quirk of the English translation. There is some perspective-swapping that can lead to momentary confusion. But overall, for me: I appreciated the history, the politics, and that growing sense of unease – then fear – as Ignacio and Carmela tried and failed to steer the regime in the right direction. Not saying the book is perfect, but it is good.