Book World: Portrait of a young Castro, drawn from his personal archive

Young Castro: The Making of a Revolutionary

By Jonathan M Hansen

Simon & Schuster. 484 pp USD35

HOW many biographies of a person are too many? Type “Fidel Castro” into a library database, and hundreds of books about Cuba’s long-omnipresent leader pop up. For American readers, the accounts of Tad Szulc, Georgie Anne Geyer and Robert Quirk from the 1980s and 90s may be most familiar. But many other character assessments – fulsome and denunciatory – appeared in the years immediately following Castro’s improbable ascent to power in 1959.

Jonathan M Hansen’s Young Castro: The Making of a Revolutionary thus joins a crowded field. It also follows countless paeans to and condemnations of the man (especially among Cubans on and off the island) published, chanted at rallies and tweeted in the two-and-a-half years since his death. For that reason, a fresh, deeply researched appraisal of his life is welcome and was even to be expected. Hansen, however, endeavours not to evaluate Castro’s time in government but to reintroduce us to Fidel Castro before he became the liberator/despot we thought we knew.

This is not an entirely new approach. In 1998, Deborah Shnookal and Pedro Álvarez Tabío compiled a series of Castro’s statements over the years about his childhood. Ignacio Ramonet, a French journalist, devoted considerable attention to Castro’s youth in an interview-based “spoken autobiography” published in 2006. But Hansen writes in a less adulatory mode, while at the same time betraying some of the giddy fascination that comes from being granted extraordinary access to his subject’s personal archive. The result is a portrait of Castro through the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 that is measured and occasionally indulgent, meticulous and readable at the same time.

Hansen’s deep dive into Castro family history is particularly helpful and full of irony. Ángel Castro was a destitute Spanish soldier who came to Cuba to help maintain peninsular control over one of the last colonies in Spain’s formerly far-flung American empire. As such, he fought the Cuban independence army that his son Fidel later idolised. When Cuba became independent under US tutelage, Ángel reinvented himself as a rural capitalist, assembling significant landholdings in Cuba’s east and maintaining cordial relations with the American staff of a neighbouring United Fruit Company plantation – a plantation his son’s government would nationalise. But he was also a paternalistic figure, opening his home to humble workers on his payroll and providing employment to those in need. – Text and Photo by The Washington Post