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Revolutionary road

Remembrances of Castro's schoolmates illuminate Cuba past and present

Castro at Mount Vernon, Va., 1959. He is recalled as turbulent and self-willed by classmates in 'The Boys From Dolores.' Castro at Mount Vernon, Va., 1959. He is recalled as turbulent and self-willed by classmates in "The Boys From Dolores." (Roberto Salas)

The Boys From Dolores: Fidel Castro's Classmates From Revolution to Exile
By Patrick Symmes
Pantheon, 3 52 pp., $26.95

Patrick Symmes' s vividly original portrayal of Fidel Castro's Cuba starts twice. First in Florida, a couple of years ago, at a high school reunion of exiles in their 70 s and 80 s. Then 60 years earlier in the capital, Santiago, with young Fidel and some 70 fellow boarders asleep as dawn comes to their school, the elite Jesuit-run Dolores Academy.

Symmes constructs his searching and beautifully written "The Boys From Dolores" around the two sides of a divide. One side is the aging and increasingly disparate community of rough ly a million -- including all but a handful of Castro's Dolores classmates -- who fled since he took power in 1958 . Using their reunion, where reproductions of the 1959 Havana phone book are on sale, as an exemplar, Symmes writes:

"Cuban exiles are on a journey that cannot be finished in one lifetime , a two-hundred-mile transmigration of the soul that is at once irreversible , and incompletable . The survivor suffers from temporal confusion, at once in eastern Cuba in 1941 and in Miami Springs in 2005. Equally at home in that lost Atlantis, that mythical Cuba from 'before,' and in the Dade County real estate market."

The other side of the divide, of course, is Cuba itself, where a once-vital revolution has shriveled under the sole ruler, now in his 80 s and critically ill. Over nearly 50 years Castro has relinquished nothing, substituting in place of evolution a series of spasmodic shifts and turnabouts, all of which were rigidly under his control.

The odd result of this (even granted America's disabling belligerence) is that Cuba is as bound inside an aging paradigm, and as cut off from the future, as the exiles with their illusion s of return -- those of them, at least, who have made a flourishing place in the new country while withholding from it a vital part of their identity . Perhaps the grandchildren -- the children are already in their 50 s -- will bridge the divide; on the other hand, an illusion just over the horizon has a hard time fading.

Symmes visited Cuba 11 times over 10 years, evading what he found to be some fairly lackadais ical U S restrictions. As a kind of scruffy tourist he did a lot of hanging out, shunning tours and managing, as he puts it, to fly under an equivalently lackadais ical Cuban radar.

Only once did he make the mistake of surfacing. His effort to get a library card in Santiago to research old newspapers provoked a Gogol-like comedy of bureaucratic thrash that ended in neither permission nor denial, but only silence. (As a journalist in Cuba years ago I confronted the same official vacuum, much to the frustration of my photographer, who required planned arrangements. Casual serendipity was the only way until, after a two-day interview, Castro decided to personally conduct a series of school and farm visits. Mainly they turned out to be about him.)

Symmes went back to hanging out. And this, along with extensive reading of contemporary accounts and intensive interviews with Fidel's schoolmates in Miami and a few in Cuba, provided the material for this remarkably layered book. Symmes has a wealth of stories: some he experienced, some were told to him, some he read. But instead of using the stories to illustrate a point, as journalists tend to do, he lets his points grow out of them, with novel-like effect.

Symmes's depiction of Fidel as a boarding student draws valuable detail from the classmates , while the author's time in Cuba provides a living setting for it. He writes about heat; he evokes the tropical darkness of the Santiago night, the gradual lightening, the brief salvific coolness of the dawn when the city -- and the boarders -- begin to awaken.

"Nothing about sunrise here is subtle or slow. There is a revolution from night, to light, in half an hour, an unsentimental amount of time," he writes. "In Cuba it could be dark out when you started brushing your teeth, and when you stepped out of the bathroom a moment later, it was day. Like autumn in New England, or spring in Virginia, a dawn in Cuba is a memory even as it happens, a kind of anticipated nostalgia."

Symmes does not so much suggest as allow the reader to suggest: the fierce Santiago climate as an element in Castro's temperament, the joining of two senses of "revolution." At the same time, a link of that precious dawn to the nostalgia of the exiles -- so rooted in their character that it is experienced almost apart from real memory .

Fidel is recalled as turbulent and self-willed, with a burning need to stand out that made him a brilliant student and a leader of school hikes along the backroads of the Sierra Maestra. Jose Antonio Cubenas , a classmate, tells of seeing him throw a baseball bat with such force after striking out that it shattered another student's collarbone. "Animal!" Cubenas shouted in a fury, knocking Fidel down when he charged him . It was public humiliation and intolerable; yet Fidel, pairing resentment with cool calculation, kept in touch through university, and Cubenas, though distrusting him, played a heroic role in collecting funds for the fight in the Sierra. Later, when the revolution turned harder, he fled.

A more detailed account is given by Lundy Aguilar, another brilliant student who was briefly close to Fidel. When a cowboy movie was shown, Fidel cheered the Indians; when the students visited the site of an American reverse during the Spanish-American War, he boasted that "here we defeated the Americans." Aguilar reminded him that it was the Spaniards who'd done it; the Cubans were fighting on the American side. A Georgetown professor and the most thoughtful of Symmes's exiles, Aguilar briefly worked for the Castro regime before denouncing it for something far worse than censorship when it shut down a leading newspaper. "Censorship," he wrote in 1960, in possibly the last bit of criticism published in Cuba, "obliges us to silence our own truth: unanimity forces us to repeat the lies of others."

Symmes interviews a great many other exiles, ranging from the reasonable to the rabid , as well as some of the few Dolores alumni who stayed. Only one of those he found is a supporter; the others made it cautiously clear that they are not. He writes with invariable sympathy and invariabl y chilling objectivity. He relates the present state of Cuba in live detail (much more than this review can indicate), praising the achievements in literacy, health, and housing, and laying out the squalor and above all the stony crackdowns on those seeking some beginnings of transition.

The conclusion of this accomplished book, generously intoxicated with its subject, is dark, with both regime and activist exiles unwilling to imagine a future beyond , respectively, constriction or catastrophe.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.