The Island that Dared, by Dervla Murphy
Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen, where the deuce can we go without Dervla Murphy getting there before us? This miracle of ubiquity has rattled from end to end of the Andes, tracked the Indus to its source, ridden a mule through Ethiopia and a bicycle across Romania. If her curiosity, stamina and resourcefulness are remarkable, so too is her modesty, a virtue not always uppermost among travel-writers. She demands no special praise from us for having endured the rigours of her various journeys and this lack of ego-preening lends a greater authenticity to the overall atmosphere.
Murphy enthusiasts should not be fooled by the opening chapters of The Island That Dared, in which the author figures as a cheery old card jaunting off for a few weeks in Cuba with her family, a tourist rather than a traveller. Plainly Nyanya, as her grandchildren call her, is taking notes during the trip, as they go hitching and bussing across the island, shaking down in tin-roofed huts among the cockroaches, scratching their mosquito bites and watching their chicken supper being caught, strangled and gutted. A month or so later, having checked out the territory and mastered at least some of its complex socio- political rhetoric, Nyanya slips back by herself for a more powerful dose of non-aligned egalitarianism Castro-style. This time ‘I wouldn’t have to worry about food supplies, landmines, staying too long in museums, travelling by train, getting lost, being arrested. As a traveller, I’d be back to normal.’ True, up to a point. Murphy treks into Cuba’s mountainous hinterland, to the consternation of the locals, to whom wandering alone seems dangerously eccentric, especially in a woman of 74. She endures the horror of unlit, bug-infested trains, which take the best part of a day to travel 100 miles. She falls in love with the city of Santa Clara, founded by 17th-century refugees from the Cuban equivalent of the Salem witch trials and nowadays ‘both dignified and jolly, handsome in the centre, dishevelled in an insouciant sort of way around the edges’, gladly returning to it a year later to join in celebrations of Che Guevara’s birthday.
Towards Che himself she is unfashionably sympathetic. Those who delighted to rubbish The Motorcycle Diaries for its hagiographic piety, claiming instead that the guerrilla icon was simply another thuggish dogmatist of the left, will scorn her approval as mere embarrassing naivete. Yet perhaps the Marxist gunman was genuine in proselytising for that common good whose value our gourmandising, self-indulgent capitalism seems so reluctant to acknowledge. In Murphy’s reading, Cuba as a whole has not made too bad a fist of living up to Guevaran ideals. Almost everyone she meets is literate, healthy, adequately fed and properly employed. It is easy to see why most of them are protective of Castro, defensive of the government and not necessarily falling over each other to welcome the notional blessings of American hegemony.
Should Cuba therefore be commended for its role as a persistent morsel of grit in a giant’s shoe? Aware of the regime’s shortcomings, more especially as regards the repression of freedom among writers and journalists, Murphy nevertheless takes a dim view of its chief opponent, the Cuban American National Foundation, spliced together from CIA-funded terrorists, their operators in Washington and the directors and major shareholders of Bacardi Rum. As for America’s continuing embargo, we can readily endorse her implicit conclusion that this represents nothing more exalted than a prolonged sulk over Cuba’s courageous rejection of its former role as a corrupt Caribbean satellite of the mainland superpower.
The trouble with The Island That Dared is not its writer’s opinions, from which readers are free to dissent, but the muddled nature of its basic concept. In earlier books she has contrived a skilful balance between personal narrative, things seen and broader observation on the flow of history and the social conditions of the countries visited. Here, in contrast, it is hard not to feel that we are reading two different works simultaneously, a travel memoir and a political analysis, both of them arresting but the former rather too aggressively brushed aside by the latter. Clearly Murphy’s authorial gaze, in its resolute inquisitiveness, remains beady, but its focus is less on Cuba as a place than on the country’s idea of itself as a democracy and on its geopolitical role as a maverick David defying the modern Goliath.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 22, 2008