A non-partisan journal of the left.

Book review: Venceremos

Wed 12th Oct 2011

Howard Waxman’s first novel, a political thriller set in 1970 against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, does not disappoint. The title of the book, Venceremos, is Spanish for ‘we will overcome.’

The narrative is spread across America, Canada and Cuba. Jay Cardinale is a Vietnam war hero who, having witnessed the horrors of conflict, chooses to desert rather than return to Vietnam. He takes refuge in Canada rather than face imprisonment in the US. Whilst trying to lie low, he is forced to accept a Faustian bargain whereby he will receive a full pardon in exchange for carrying out the assassination of an American political dissident now living in Cuba. As the plot progresses, Cardinale, who unwillingly enters Cuba in the guise of a member of the ‘Venceremos’ solidarity brigade, realises that the ‘task’ given to him is far more complex than first imagined as he is torn between a willingness to return to his family in the US and an unwillingness to carry out his ‘mission’. As the story progresses Cardinale does some earnest soul searching and questions his ideas, motives and political views.

Throughout the novel, the protagonist struggles to keep up the appearance of being a loyal brigade member as he joins his fellow ‘brigadistas’ in the Cuban sugar cane fields labouring to ensure Cuba attains its annual sugar cane quota. He also meets members of a North Vietnamese solidarity brigade, encounters sectarian rivalry between various left-wing factions, falls in love and faces the wrath of a jealous Cuban worker who has his eyes on the same girl, and tries to acclimatise to the Socialist society of post-revolutionary Cuba.

The book’s chapters are short and easy to read. Those familiar with Havana will recognise various city landmarks as they appear in the story, such ‘El Floridita’, a cocktail bar in old Havana where writer Earnest Hemingway would often come to enjoy Daiquiris. The plot moves swiftly and builds with anticipation as Cardinale gets closer to his intended victim, ignorant of the true purpose of his mission to Cuba. The drama builds to a crescendo as a key scene of the novel takes place in Havana’s famous ‘Hotel Nacional’.

Although Waxman’s novel is a work of fiction, the plot is entwined with recognisable events and personages of the late 60s and early 70s era. Anti-war demos, Hippie communes, Bobby Seale- Chairman of the Black Panther Party, Abbie Hoffman- founder of the Youth International Party ‘Yippies’, the Chicago Seven Trial, the left-wing radical group known as the ‘Weathermen’, and Fidel Castro himself are woven into the narrative.

For those too young to recollect the casual sex, the radical politics and the dreams of the 60s and 70s, Waxman’s novel provides a multi-layered insight into a long-gone era using his own memories and experiences of those years. He also employs subtle humour, from the viewpoint of the main character, to gently satirise other characters in the novel.

Howard Waxman is an accomplished playwright and theatre critic. During the 1960s he was a member of the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe, a group which, to this day, continues to perform out-door political satire, remaining a thorn in the side of capitalism and war.
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