Cuba: My Revolution is the first book by activist and artist Inverna Lockpez and the best yet by her lifetime family friend, pioneering neo-pop cartoonist Dean Haspiel.
My Revolution is the story of Lockpez’ novelistic stand-in, Sonya, whose creative passions lead her to become both an art student and a med student in the early days of Castro’s Cuba. Hungry for a change of power like most of her compatriots during the Batista regime, she finds her expression restricted and oaths betrayed in short order, but clings to the revolution’s mythology longer than the usual exile memoir, feeling her way to America and to the personal independence and categorical compassion of the title. Sonya’s original mind and genuine ethics run afoul of the approved public attitude, and though her capture and torture stem from a principled act, the circumstances of her imprisonment and survival alike are essentially random, so her continued allegiance to the cause can be just as arbitrary.
Even if we didn’t know what we do about revolutionary optimism and what becomes of it, in Cuba and most places, Lockpez is a master of building a sense of foreboding amidst hope and plenty; like all survivors of trauma and only true novelists, she relates the book’s events as if they were happening for the first time, with a keen ear for utopian naiveté and eye for the gray areas beyond its limits, and we can feel the half-century chasm opening up beneath Sonya’s momentary height of ideological euphoria.
Haspiel is unsurpassed at employing comics’ capacity for a storytelling simultaneity which, while static, transcends cinema, as in one page where clubgoers are enclosed in panels surrounded by a border of Fidel’s troops advancing through the countryside, followed by one in which the club expands to the edges of the page with a solitary mambo drummer superimposed in the center; an ingenious counterpoint of contracted worlds and unstable margins.
Lockpez is also adept -- and for a medium that favors forward motion, brave -- at depicting the long grinding normalcy that follows rushes of historical crisis; the worst thing that happens to her fictional counterpart happens very early on, followed by years of numb acceptance on her part and agitated dreams of escape by some around her which are equally self-deceptive and just as emotionally necessary.
In a quintessentially physical but not often beautiful medium, Haspiel has become a leading poet of the body, as one of nature’s masterpieces and the soul’s sacred territory; sometimes glorified, sometimes abject, but never prurient or profane. It makes him the most understanding interpreter of both the illuminated everyday, each moment of heady revolution and commonplace conversation charged with human energy, and of a story that spirals into horror and stabs back in tragic flashbacks, told unsparingly but utterly unsensationally.
Body parts play a significant role in the narrative and its psychic texture too; Sonya’s account returns to her shaking or rubbery legs at moments of trial, as a wartime doctor she imagines troops’ legs filling her mind’s eye (the view of humanity from a child’s height, or from the position of someone felled), and in a single signature image Haspiel’s frame focuses on Sonya’s combat-booted foot opposite a wealthy world-be lover’s fine leather saddle-shoe, two personalities marching at irreconcilably cross purposes. The body as battlefield of conflicted feelings and constituent of epic change for better and worse is an unspoken, anonymous protagonist, from delivery rooms to torture chambers, and Lockpez’ artist’s eye for biology’s design, from strange earth-mother dream sequences to looming anatomical charts like the visual dissent to monumental personality-cult propaganda, remains sharp and generous. As much as Lockpez the long-time painter recalls moments and feelings with crystalline insight, Lockpez the first-time novelist threads telling details throughout the book, including the theme of bad fathers, broken families and the need to believe and cling to them which is undiminished by the authorities’ and institutions’ unfitness. The women protagonists are often moved through life by absent or marginal men (a departed flame that Sonya keeps imagining; a demanding stepfather who influences her mom’s actions), and Sonya’s birth dad shows worthy parenthood by urging her to go while Fidel, abusive father of his country, demands absolute devotion. We know that Sonya gets out since Lockpez is here so that’s no spoiler, but the fragments of family she is either left by or leaves behind at each turn carefully qualify any easy sentiment to be found in the phases of her life.
The things Lockpez lived through, and the legions ready to inflict them or look away, make it easy to believe that we are nature’s only mistake. But societies can learn; humans, alone among creation it seems, can question; and God, if there is one, is the capacity to care, without condition. The world is learning, or at least listening, to stories like Lockpez’, thinkers like her know how to question, and artists like Haspiel know how to care. Those are powers that can make anyone feel able to go on.