João Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. He is the author of seven books: Art and Literature in the Spanish Civil War, Blame It on Too Much Freedom, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, Devil’s Observations, Maria Pia: Queen and Woman, José de Guimarães (published in China by the Today Art Museum) and José de Guimarães: Public Art. The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Book Awards in 2013 and will be published in Argentina in 2014.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro. When did you start writing and what got you into literary fiction?
My father had an excellent library. The desire to be a writer probably manifested itself as soon as I started looking at those books. However, I only really felt capable of writing a novel after I turned 35. Portuguese literature dates back to the Middle Ages, and there is an important tradition of the art of good writing which goes from the Cantigas de Amigo (medieval lyric poetry) right up to José Saramago. Anyone who is familiar with the classics of Portuguese or universal literature is likely to feel like a poor dwarf venturing into a land of giants. That is why, for many years, I didn’t dare enter that world. Even now (and perhaps this will always happen) I feel completely tiny and insignificant whenever I read Marcel Proust, Stefan Zweig or Lobo Antunes. The trick is to leap onto their shoulders while no one is looking. In The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, I am, in fact, standing on the shoulders of several giants.
What was your inspiration for The Tragedy of Fidel Castro?
In 1917 something extraordinary happened in the village of Fátima, Portugal. Three children claimed that they saw the Virgin Mary and angels descending from the sky and that they had been entrusted with three secrets. They also said that the Virgin would perform a miracle on October 13. On that day, tens of thousands of people came to Fátima and witnessed extraordinary solar activity, although nobody else in the rest of the world witnessed the phenomenon. For believers it was a miracle, for sceptics it was a hoax produced with the aid of mirrors or a collective hallucination, and some even believed that there had been some kind of extraterrestrial intervention. Since my childhood this amazing story has fascinated me. Recently, I spent considerable time in Cuba where I was told stories by those who had experienced Fidel Castro’s regime firsthand. For example, the students who were brought from Havana to the countryside and for a whole month picked tomatoes and other vegetables without any payment. They also told me the story of the execution of one of the nation’s heroes, General Arnaldo Ochoa – who helped the MPLA Marxist guerrillas to win the Angolan civil war (he is the inspiration for the character Camilo Ochoa). The relation between Castro and the miracle of Fátima is that one of the prophecies included the end of Communism.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
I wanted to create something truly original, involving contemporary problems, politics, and the existence of God using facts, humor, and irony. So, I hope that my readers reflect on the important issues in today’s world – capitalism versus socialism – as well as the meaning of life. But I also hope that these reflections come up with a good laugh.
Did your book require a lot of research?
When the character of Varadero, Fidel Castro’s spy, is arguing with JFK, he basically presents a Marxist critique of capitalism, and for that, I had to study Marx’s theories. As for Castro’s diaries, they resulted from the interviews he gave to Gianni Minà and from the speeches that I’ve seen on television. And Fidel’s interpretation of the story of David, Uriah and Bathsheba led me to reread the Bible.
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
I try to keep the reader in suspense about what is going to happen next. What will happen to a character that has been arrested? What will be the outcome of a conflict? I try to surprise, to be unexpected. Another of the techniques I use is to leave some loose ends, which are only joined up later on. The attitude that a character assumes on page 20 may only be understood on page 100. But by the end, everything should make sense. Nothing can happen by chance. I try to avoid letting the narrative stagnate or getting bogged down in events that are of no interest, long descriptions or banal dialogues. There should not be one word too many. That is the problem with novels that are over 300 pages long. In most cases, there are bits that are simply unnecessary as they don’t further the story in any way; they are there merely to fill out the book, which some people think is a measure of literary quality. For example – and this might shock some – in the almost 600 pages of Moby Dick, there is not much information about whales, else it might have started to sound like a zoological compendium about the life of cetaceans.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
I write because I love making up stories. The possibility of creating something that has not existed till then is extraordinary. I create a world; I people it with characters; I unleash conflicts and offer solutions (that don’t always work). In short, I play god. Beyond that, my greatest pleasure – after the prizes and the reviews, of course – is hearing some reader saying that he or she loved the book. It pleases me when someone praises my imagination. But what really makes me happy is for someone to say that the book made him laugh. At that moment I know that I have forged a special bond with another person, and that I have managed, if only for a few seconds, to light up something inside them.
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Comments?
There are other writers, besides Orwell, that describe writing as a kind of torture. But I find it difficult to believe that they really mean this. Writing is preceded by an idea which we begin to develop, and only then do we sit down to write. That is to say, before putting pen to paper, we think, organise our ideas, structure the future novel. That process can take months. And the writer gets involved in this task because he feels that he is going to create something important. So creation is a pleasure, not a torment. Later, perhaps, when you’re struggling to make headway with the story, it may become more difficult, a source of suffering.
At particular moments, it can indeed seem as if there is a voice dictating the story, which we cannot resist. However, that voice will have been summoned previously by us. Phillip K. Dick said that he wrote in a kind of trance (with or without drugs) and I don’t doubt that. But for that to happen, the mind will first have been supplied with the raw materials necessary for the voice to speak. In order to get into a trance or hear voices or be led by demons, a great deal of hard work is necessary beforehand.
Where is your book available?
The book is available in Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other stores.