Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Miami by Joan Didion

What is a non-fiction book about? Some are obvious: biographies, histories of wars and other clearly defined things.

But a book called Miami, published in 1987, based on interviews and conversations and reportage in that city and Washington, DC, over the course of the previous couple of years? What do you think that is about?

Cuba. It's about Cuba.

And revolution, or more specifically the dream of counter-revolution. About realpolitik, more specifically the ways people who refuse to believe in it bang their heads on it repeatedly over the years. About US policy and "regime change," or the dream of it. About exiles and the exile experience, about that endless desire to go back, to take back what you know is rightfully yours. About ideological inflexibility, and the power of a cause, especially the power of a myth that you've been stabbed in the back.

As I said: Cuba.

I don't know for sure that Joan Didion came to the reportage for this book deliberately after Salvador, to take a wider view of US meddling in Latin America, at the broken promises and curdled dreams and the ways anti-Communism transforms from a crusade to a comforting excuse and back again, repeatedly. But it certainly feels that way. The focus here is mostly on the Cuban exiles of Miami, the ones who mostly were born in Cuba before the 1959 revolution and fled, then or soon afterward, for the US. In the mid-80s those men were mostly in their middle age - many had been young and energetic and violent in their youth (the Bay of Pigs looms large in this book), and are still unyielding and demanding twenty-five years later, though less active in their revolution.

There is less immediate death in Miami than there was in Salvador. Miami in 1985 did not have designated regions where murdered bodies appeared every morning the way San Savador did in 1982. But Miami is a bigger city, and the violence and anger bubbling through all of these Cuban exiles, mostly relatively rich and powerful but obsessed with the position and possessions and lives they feel were stolen from them by Castro, is central to the book.

As always, Didion is clear-eyed and precise. She lets these men tell their stories, she presents their concerns and obsessions as straightforwardly as such insane things can be - let's remember this was a large number of fairly well-off men who thought the US owed them an entire foreign nation, that government policy of their adopted country should have been, at all times, to invade and overthrow Castro's regime and give them back control of their former land.

Well, it's more complicated than that: the exiles had many factions and groups, as of course they must. No one hates better than compatriots: they all hated Castro, but most of them hated each other more.

Miami is an odd book to read thirty-plus years later: I get the sense that nothing has essentially changed. The men Didion talked to are old, many of them dead. But Cuba is still there, still 'Communist," and the exile experience seems to have perpetuated itself through another couple of generations - I'm sure the demands and anger aren't the same, but I'm also pretty sure there are still loud, volcanic demands and anger, from the children and grandchildren of the last ones to actually set foot in Cuba.

But maybe that makes it more important to read books like this; to see what the anger was like several twists of the tale earlier, when it was at least somewhat more straightforward. Even if, in the end, all those angers are the same thing: that core demand to have everything you ever had, and everything that could have come from what you had - the demand for endless possibilities, perfect outcomes, only for you.

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