Nelson DeMille’s new novel, The Cuban Affair, takes us on a hard-hitting adventure through modern-day Cuba and makes some memorable points about today’s tense political situation along the way. DeMille has an incredible gift for perfectly capturing a character’s voice and unique personality. His protagonist in The Cuban Affair is 35-year-old former US Army infantry officer Daniel Graham MacCormick, or Mac for short.
Originally from Portland, Maine, we meet Mac once he’s become a charter fishing boat captain in Key West, Florida. We never fully hear about Mac’s tour in Afghanistan except for some traumatic combat memories, but we’re told he has a Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, and shrapnel wounds, so DeMille makes it clear that Mac saw heavy action.
DeMille reintroduces Mac into some abrupt, heart-racing action in The Cuban Affair. The story is told from the first-person point of view and is an action-packed, rollicking tale. After he’s approached by a group of mysterious Cuban expats in Key West, Mac gets talked into a top-secret mission to recover $60 million in U.S. cash and property deeds from a cave in Cuba that were hidden during Castro’s violent overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Mac feels like there’s something fishy about the whole operation, but eventually signs on, enticed in part by a beautiful Cuban-American woman, Sara, who will be his partner for the mission. DeMille showcases his humor throughout the book, such as when Sara is talking Mac into accepting the mission. They’re out on Mac’s charter boat and Sara tries to appeal to his sense of adventure and his sense of right and wrong, with mixed results:
“Don’t talk yourself out of this, Mac. There’s a saying—‘ I’d rather regret the things I did than the things I didn’t do.’ ”
“I actually regret both.”
“We need you. This is also about justice. And about striking a blow against an inhuman system.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I gave her my standard spiel. “Make yourself comfortable below, or stay on deck, but don’t fall overboard. The Straits are an all-you-can-eat salad bar for sharks. We’ll be back to port within an hour.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
Mac, of course, ends up taking on the mission and getting himself in hot water after traveling to Cuba under the cover of a Yale educational tour then breaking away to get the hidden money. Things don’t go as planned and the book ends up taking a few sharp zigs and zags as it rockets to its conclusion, but this refreshing, zany, and cynical sense of humor is a great recurring feature throughout the book.
An Uncompromising Look at Modern Cuba
Demille also doesn’t shy away from the hard topics. He’s uncompromising in his look at the sadness of modern Cuba and the empty rhetoric of its socialist revolution. Mac doesn’t really care about what happened in Cuba and comes across as basically apolitical: He just wants to get the money and the girl.
There are complications, naturally. The money is buried in a rural cave in a heavily armed police state full of citizen informants and the girl has a boyfriend. Nonetheless, despite his focus on the basics and disinterest in politics, even Mac starts to feel disillusioned after arriving in Havana and looking around at the state of things. “Revolutions usually replace one group of incompetent autocratic assholes with another, and the real losers are everyone else,” Mac ponders at one point.
When he finds out about the food situation in Cuba it’s even more sobering. Sara explains to him that Cuba is basically half starving as they look around an organic farm:
“You’ll never see fresh fruit in the countryside.”
“Actually, we will at the organic food farm.”
“That’s all show, and what you see in the hotels is all imported.”
She explained, “The farms are government-owned and mostly deserted because the work is backbreaking, still done with animals and human labor. Farmers get the same twenty dollars a month that they’d get pushing a broom in the city, so there’s no incentive to stay on the farm.”
Sorry I mentioned it.
“Ninety percent of the Cuban diet is beans and rice, imported from Vietnam, and even that is rationed.”
Even as Sara and Mac traverse Cuba and get into big trouble, DeMille keeps the laughs coming. It’s quite funny that DeMille puts a character called Richard Neville (clearly a humorous stand-in for himself) into the book. Neville is a bestselling adventure author traveling with Mac’s tour group in Cuba to research a book and Mac notices Neville’s highly attractive wife (a real “looker”). Not believing she could really be into the grouchy writer, Mac surmises she must be attracted to Neville for “the bulge in his pants – his wallet, not his crotch.”
Neville and Mac also have a bit of a rivalry for Sara and a competing inside joke about Ernest Hemingway that is hilarious. As Neville takes photos in front of Hemingway’s house in Cuba:
“Neville’s wife, Cindy, was insisting that her bestselling husband pose for photos. He complied, but he wasn’t smiling, maybe thinking that people never took photos of themselves in front of his house, wherever that was. But maybe they would if he blew his brains out like Hemingway did. Just saying.”
As Mac and Sara work to get the money they run into a citizen informer, or chivato. He tries to buy them off in return for his silence that he suspects they are up to funny business and explains how things really work in the Communist paradise:
He smiled, then said patiently, “In Cuba, guilt or innocence is not important. Politics are important. Let me remind you that your compatriot Alan Gross received a fifteen-year sentence for spying and spent five years in prison, and he was innocent.”
“Apparently he didn’t have someone like you to tip him off.”
“You are fortunate to have me.”
“In America we say, with friends like you I don’t need enemies.”
In another part Mac and Sara walk through the nicest neighborhood of Havana and are shocked at what they see, which is outright hypocrisy:
Sara looked at the well-kept houses along the road.
“These Communist pigs have beach clubs, good food, and access to foreign goods that the Cuban people can only dream about.”
“I’m sure they’re wracked with guilt.”
“They’re hypocritical shit eaters.”
The Right Combination of Sassy and Sad
In the end, The Cuban Affair manages to combine just the right amount of sassy and sad. It doesn’t focus all on doom and gloom, nor does it pretend that everything is merely a joke. At its most profound “teachable moment,” Mac concludes that life is messy and the truth about humanity lies somewhere in between optimism and blackpill nihilism. He concludes that human affairs are complex and paradoxical, alternately bringing out the best and worst in different individuals.
The CIA’s motto, ‘The truth shall set you free,’ was kind of an understood joke, while Key West’s motto, ‘One Human Family,’ is a sad joke. Somewhere in between the cynical lies and a naïve trust in the human race was the true human condition: complex and capable of anything from heroism and self-sacrifice to betrayal and murder. That’s what I saw in Afghanistan, and what I saw in Cuba.
In his acknowledgements, DeMille mentions that he did personally go on a Yale educational tour of Cuba to prepare for the book—Richard Neville, indeed. He also thanks various friends, family, and colleagues who helped and advised him on the book. One is especially telling, because it shows that this book comes from the source:
I’d like to thank a man who I met in Cuba, and who gave it to me straight about contemporary Cuban politics, culture, and life. He wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, but he’s given himself the code name ‘Lola.’ Thank you, Lola, wherever you are, and take care.
The Cuban Affair is quite timely politically as well, seeing as the Obama administration’s attempted Cuban thaw is getting quite chilly. U.S. diplomats have recently been pulled out of Cuba due to suspected sonic attacks that are leaving U.S. embassy staff deaf, concussed, and seriously ill. Experts speculate that the sophistication of the operation to hurt U.S. staff points to involvement by a third-party intelligence service, most likely Venezuelan, Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or North Korean.
Apparently President Obama’s grandiose photo in front of the giant mural of Che Guevara didn’t magically make everything copacetic. Although President Trump partly rolled back Obama’s “terrible” March 2016 normalization of relations with Cuba, the U.S. embassy was kept open and the situation was supposed to be slowly improving at least in terms of business and political ties. Now a bunch of evacuated embassy staffers are deaf. Cuba denies it, of course.
Luckily, DeMille’s book only requires eyesight to enjoy. That’s awfully insensitive joke, I know. It seems some of DeMille’s cavalier sense of humor has rubbed off on me. But The Cuban Affair is definitely worth your money. It doesn’t pack quite as epic a punch as some of DeMille’s past bestsellers like Radiant Angel, but it’s a solid adventure story that’ll keep you hooked from start to finish with a lot of laughs and white-knuckled moments along the way.