by Fidel Castro, with Ignacio Ramonet
Penguin/Allen Lane, HK$413
Castro has held the world spellbound with his defiance. The last great revolutionary leader of the mid-20th century, a lawyer turned fighter, then statesman and rebel, he has outlasted nine US presidents and survived hundreds of assassination attempts.
As Ignacio Ramonet, editor of French global affairs magazine Le Monde Diplomatique, writes: 'Few men have known the glory of entering the pages of both history and legend while they are still alive. Fidel is one of them. He is the last 'sacred giant' of international politics. He belongs to the generation of mythical insurgents - Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Minh, Patrice Lumumba ... Che Guevara ... who, pursuing an ideal of justice, threw themselves into political action following the second world war. Like thousands of progressives and intellectuals around the world ... that generation honestly thought that Communism promised a bright and shining future.'
In 1959 Fidel Castro, then 32 and now the octogenarian president of Cuba, emerged from the jungle hinterland of his homeland to lead a homegrown revolution.
This was the US's own back yard. Indeed, Washington had passed laws allowing it to interfere in Cuban affairs as an 'internal matter'. Yet the island was being bled dry by the mafia and a US-supported dictatorship which, like that in modern Myanmar, had simply ignored election results.
When Castro and his men overthrew the hated Batista regime the cold war was reaching its height and they earned both infamy and respect. Within a few years, the crisis concerning Castro's links to the Soviet Union and its nuclear missiles would lead the world to the brink of annihilation.
My Life is a series of detailed interviews. Castro and Ramonet sat down for hundreds of hours across several years to prepare the exhaustive work. It's not a standard autobiography, however, even though it follows a more or less chronological sequence. There have been other books on Castro, but this is surely one of the most detailed of the 'authorised' works.
What's more, Ramonet - despite some deferential leanings - doesn't shy away from controversy. In fact, he makes it clear he wanted to uncover as much as he could. Castro took the process so seriously that he was reading and re-reading all his answers even as he was at death's door after difficulties following surgery last year.
Through a fascinating series of meetings, Castro the man, the individual, slowly emerges as he was (or as he remembers he was) during all those momentous points in history. He is here in his childhood, during the attempted invasion by the US and its allies at the Bay of Pigs, amid the Cuban missile crisis, during the hard times on the run and fighting as a guerilla, with the loss of friends such as Guevara, through the revolutionary wars in Africa to which Cuba sent troops, at times of mass emigration from the island, and dealing with his controversial human rights record.
The book can become confusing when Ramonet delves deep into certain aspects of the past, expecting the reader to understand the specific context - for instance, the tempestuous and febrile world of Latin American politics before the Cuban revolution, when Castro
was travelling the region drumming up support for his ideas - so it's a tome for those already interested or versed in the revolutionary leader's exploits.
But Ramonet's access to Castro reveals his subject's iron will and determination, as well as intriguing details about his childhood.
With the Cuban leader probably not long for the world, and with the entire region swinging away from US neoliberalism in favour of the left, it remains more important than ever to understand just what - and who - drove the amazing, if flawed, experiment that is modern Cuba.