~written by Néstor Kohan
~illustrated by Nahuel Scherma
~translated by Elise Buchman
Fidel: An Illustrated Biography by Néstor Kohan and illustrated by Nahuel Scherma, two Argentinians, was originally published in Spanish under the title Fidel para Principiantes (roughly translated as "Fidel for Beginners") in 2006. Seven Stories Press, a publisher based in the United States, published a translation by Elise Buchman in 2010 with additional illustrations by Miracle Jones. (Unfortunately, I couldn't tell you for certain which illustrations belong to which artist.) I learned about Fidel through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program and was lucky enough to snag a copy of the book for review. I was excited to be selected because I actually know very Little about Cuba or Fidel Castro and was interested in learning more, especially in graphic novel form.
First things first--despite how it is being marketed, Fidel is neither a graphic novel nor a biography of Fidel Castro. Instead, it is more of a political history of Cuba, in which Castro is of course a very important figure, that happens to be accompanied by artwork and illustrations. There is nothing wrong with this, but it certainly was not what I or others were expecting the book to be. Fidel's layout makes the subject matter very approachable but it is also problematic. The book is written as a progression of short entries, each focusing briefly on a specific topic with at least one related illustration. This allows Kohan to convey quite a bit of information in a relatively short period of time; the problem with this approach is that nothing is examined in depth and occasionally the text feels more like a listing of names, dates, and facts rather than a cohesive narrative. Because of this, some previous knowledge of the people and events involved (which I don't have) would be useful to a reader.
But even considering that, Fidel does still serve as a decent, if brief and opinionated, introduction to the subject involved. The entries follow a roughly chronological order beginning with Castro's birth in 1926 and ending with events in 2006, the year the book was first published. Unfortunately, there is no index included, but Fidel is fairly short and can be easily browsed. While Castro is an understandably recurring theme in the book, I wouldn't really say he is the focus. Instead Kohan explains revolutionary ideals and thought, Cuban politics and government, and Cuba's participation in the global arena.
Fidel is obviously written with an extreme bias and a blatant anti-United States sentiment. Now, I will be the first person to admit that the U.S. has done some pretty shitty things, but I found the one-sided vehemence to be off-putting and that's not because I am an American. For whatever reason I found Scherma's illustrations, which are as equally passionate and searing as the text is, much more palatable. In fact, the artwork was my favorite part of the book--Scherma effectively uses several different styles of illustration and collage work. Kohan and Scherma offer a valuable viewpoint in Fidel, one not often heard in the U.S., but I can't help but feel I've only heard part of the story. The differences between ideology and the reality of its implementation is glossed over and the presentation of events is easy to understand but ignores the complexities involved in any given situation. However, I am glad I had the opportunity to read Fidel and certainly learned some things about Cuba's international relations that I wasn't previously aware of.