Barry Reckord is a Jamaican who understands colonialism as only one who grew up as a black boy in a white man’s paradise can understand it, but he writes with the skill that comes from Cambridge University and several years as a playwright and London sophisticate. He went to Cuba in 1970 to see if the Revolution had really ended colonial conditions and colonial mentality, “To find out how the performance there matched the rhetoric.” He did so by talking with a wide range of ordinary Cuban citizens, all the while maintaining a deep sympathy for the goals of the Revolution yet a refreshing ability to keep human beings and their quirks free of distortions from ideological abstractions.
Most of his short book consists of long quotations from his conversations. He found informants through a variety of means, the most interesting being the selection at random of a block in Havana, attendance at a meeting of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, then many return visits to knock on doors and talk to whoever answered. At times he followed up leads from the local residents and sought out their friends and relatives who lived somewhere else in Havana or in the provinces. He mentions at one point that he took notes (he is a literary man rather than a social scientist, so does not bother with an appendix on “methodology”; he does not even tell us where he learned such idiomatic Spanish), but the quotations are so vivid they read like the output of a tape recorder subtly translated into an English that captures nuances of class dialect, idiosyncracies of individual speech, and personalities of the speakers to the point that the reader can interpret and at times discount their opinions. All types of Cubans are included, from those whose lives have been given deep meaning by the Revolution to those whose hate spits from the page. Along with José Yglesias’ In the Fist of the Revolution: Life in a Cuban Country Town (New York: Pantheon, 1968) and Elizabeth Sutherland, The Youngest Revolution (New York: Dial, 1969), this new book by Reckord serves as the kind of literary reporting that allows those denied the opportunity to visit Cuba nevertheless to capture something of the spirit that inspires and the contradictions that plague the great social experiment of our hemisphere.
One mistake distorts an entire chapter: the two British scientists who direct the Institute of Animal Sciences and whose public dispute with Fidel Castro is recounted in detail did not leave the island; as of the summer of 1971 they were still doing their work. And I have some doubts about the educational statistics on page 89, for they seem to exaggerate the problem of drop-outs.