An Innocent In Cuba

by David W. McFadden
353 pages,
ISBN: 0771055064

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The Cuban Realm
by Gordon Phinn

David McFadden has always been partial to a bit of a jaunt. He just loves to open himself to the spirit of place and embrace all the sentient beings he discovers there, or at least as many as he can stuff into his suitcase-sized heart. In this he is as much a bodhisattva of the commonplace and curmudgeonly as a fancier of the elfin and ineffable.
During the eighties he determined to drive himself and his family around the Great Lakes, lapping up as many insights and chuckles as his self-consciously hip audience¨ momentarily released from the relentless barrage of their contemporaries' avantgardisms¨was ready, willing, and able to handle. The recent reissue of the lot under the rubric Great Lakes Suite (Talonbooks 2002) confirms that his unique illumination of the then Canadian zeitgeist was as potent a rendering as say, Hunter Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas a decade earlier. Fortunately for the anonymity-loving McFadden, the modest trilogy's original market penetration was effectively choked by the likes of Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat.
Though eccentric in intention and haphazard in execution, the account of his peregrinations en famille certainly charmed the socks off the cognoscenti of the day, confirming the robe-free zen master status already suggested by the quixotic snapshots and surreal legends of his poetry. During that period, before the grant-funded heroics of CanLit nationalism were deflated into the grinding realities of the international marketplace, George Bowering cast him as "everyone's favourite poet"; however sunnily naive that epithet may sound now, back then it had the bite of truth. For a brief period, in volumes like On The Road Again, McFadden seemed suddenly able to charm the national psyche out of its prairie basket and have it dance to an ironic new tune.
In the nineties he launched the now well-known Innocent series, exhuming his, and our Celtic heritage with visits to Ireland, Scotland and Newfoundland. Initially inspired by the once famous and now neglected H.V. Morton's "In Search Of" series, which entertained the masses from the nineteen thirties onward, he dutifully followed routes and impersonated attitudes, only gradually emerging from the master's psychic shadow to become, by the third book, very much his own man. By then he was more a philosophical entertainer than an inciter of consciousness; this was a basic reinvention of himself as the charmingly baffled armchair raconteur, drink and chuckle in hand. Once championed by those with enquiring minds and discerning haircuts, he now fell helplessly into the hands of the print imbibing mainstream and anyone with some spare time and a library card. Fortunately, each book of the series was a rollicking good read. McFadden, seemingly emptied of attitude and prejudice, merely rambles, running smack into whatever happens next. It's a delightfully unfocused way to treat experience, and the reader is thus lightly chaperoned through the giddiness and goofiness of the unexpected. On his approach, McFadden once wrote, "I was aiming at a sort of purity, random and anonymous."
Indeed, whether in pub, chapel, ruin or seashore, he apes the everyman and encounters everything, with the outrageous and hilarious most often resulting. Be forewarned, these are books one finds oneself hooting at in public places.
All this Celtic conviviality and silliness is revamped, in culturally specific fashion, for his new trek around Cuba (let's hope the first in a Caribbean trilogy). Older and wiser now he may claim to be, but the wackiness continues unabated. Strangers hammer on his hotel door at five am. Other strangers jump into his rental car, hoping for a free ride. Every second female seeks paid assignations. Many plead hungry families, poor wages and non- existent babies who require gallons of milk. Ever the good socialist, McFadden prefers offering free meals to receiving finance-dependent lubricity. Like the rest of us embarrassed first-worlders, he finds a dollar goes a long way down there.
His blue collar roots are no secret to Canadian readers, but he wisely refrains from allowing his socialist utopianisms from morphing into the tiresome lefty earnestness of some of his liberal fellow travellers. On several occasions he even manages to poke fun at his own cherished ideals: "One can be a good socialist without wanting to have uninvited people in his car, his house, or his bed.z'
If you wish to discover the real dirt on the Elian Gonzalez affair, or who is actually the worst gangster, Batista, Castro or Bush, you will have to look farther afield¨say in Louise Bardach's Cuba Confidential¨for trendy political poses are not struck here. Suffering humanity, in all its silliness and striving, is McFadden's focus. For as well as relinquishing "the perilous and frivolous excitement that lies in the lower chakras," McFadden has firmly turned his back on "the raptures of youth" and is now "on the lookout for deeper raptures, like the rapture of not giving a damn about rapture any more." These days he's more likely to tell you where to get the best pizza, beer or baked fish.
And although he tries hard not to give a damn, his compassionate nature just won't let him quit. He's always going out of his way to supply food and drink to even the most casual of acquaintances, and when he's not overtipping he's overpraising. On one memorable occasion, a bowl of poisonous soup engenders a grateful spiel for the guilty waitress. Naturally, the penitents of the Communist retreat can spot a sucker like that a mile off and the author is compelled to raise his voice on more than one occasion. One gets the distinct impression that his embarrassment is equaled only by his delectation of it. The relentless and invasive offers of chicas of all ages is perhaps the greatest source of amusement, and would continue to be in retrospect, were it not so indicative of a culture on its knees. McFadden's big heart is obviously saddened by such a prospect, this serpent in his dream of the perfect egalitarian society, but his impish humour always gets the better of him. A chica may be valued at less then a "mouldy cigar", but just there, on the statue of General Calixto, look, "the crotch area is all dark and greasy, making him appear as if he'd just wet his pants."
And if you've been nursing what some would consider a naive penchant for a traveller who gets lost more often than he finds himself, someone who revels in being pickled in paradoxes such as "They're so nervous they're causing me to be nervous about not being nervous enough", then McFadden's the innocent for you. And not quite so rapture free as he would have you think.

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