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Reinhard Kleist: Havanna. A cuban journey© Reinhard Kleist (Detail)

Thomas Hummitzsch on "Havanna"
The revolution devours its own children

In 2008, the German graphic artist, Reinhard Kleist, spent a few weeks in Cuba researching his graphic novel on Fidel Castro. In the process, he also produced a multifaceted travelogue with drawings and sketches.

In 2008, Reinhard Kleist travels to Cuba to research his graphic novel on Fidel Castro. A side product is the travel journal ‘Havanna’, very much along the lines of the French ‘Carnet de Voyage’. It gathers impressions and experiences, introduces people and places, describes difficulties and discoveries on the ground, and provides an insight into the artist’s moods and emotions.

All of course in the context of the iconic figure of the Cuban revolution whom Kleist is actually researching. And the longer one spends leafing through this book (which is just under 100 pages), the more strongly one feels Kleist’s internal struggle with the Cuban reality. Until at some point he walks past one of the omnipresent portraits of the Máximo Líder and snaps, ‘that’s a great revolution you have there!’

Reinhard Kleist, who lives in Berlin, definitely sees himself on the political left. There is no doubt that he still admires the values and ideas of the Cuban revolution. Yet at the launch of ‘Castro’, his graphic novel, he made it a point to stress: ‘What has become of the revolution, is open to question.’ He ingeniously manages to balance reality and fiction by having a German journalist, Karl Mertens, who migrates to Cuba, narrates the story of the Cuban revolution together with a biography of Fidel Castro that starts in his youth. The graphic novel is the story told by Mertens, a life spent in admiration of Fidel Castro, yet at the expense of loss and hardship.

Karl Mertens is Reinhard Kleist’s marionette, so to speak. To avoid telling the story himself and exposing himself to accusations of bias, he uses a narrator. ‘Castro’ is a biographical account of the Máximo Líder and as such also a record of his transformation from icon to dictator. Yet the revolution did lead to free healthcare and education, even if the quality is open to debate. Light and shadow are never far from each other – even, and especially, in Kleist’s view of conditions in Cuba.

This is particularly obvious when one compares ‘Castro’ and ‘Havanna’. It tells us about the artist, how he observed the everyday lives of people, talked to passers-by and children, joined street musicians in making day out of night, and met with dissidents in cafés. He recorded his impressions, experiences and conversations in pencil in a sketchbook that he took back to Berlin where he reworked and supplemented the contents. Therefore, an account of his time spent in Cuba runs through this graphic novel of the Cuban journey, interrupted by full-page impressions, pages with black and white sketches of old-timers or baseball players, with scenic miniatures and street scenes in warm sepia tones, interrupted by sober and simple descriptions of what is to be seen there.

‘Havanna’ is a rich, sensitive and insightful travelogue, a description of the mood and atmosphere of everyday life in the Cuban capital. Not only has Kleist collected a number of impressions of the city, but has also used a range of different drawing techniques. Besides pencil sketches, there are also drawings in ink and watercolour, in black and white and in colour. The manner in which the graphic novel has been produced testifies first and foremost to the calibre of the artist from Berlin. With the mix of styles, ‘Havanna’ is fundamentally different from his biographic comic books (‘Cash – I See a Darkness’, ‘Castro’, ‘The Boxer’, ‘An Olympic Dream’, ‘Nick Cave – Mercy on Me’ and, most recently, ‘Knock Out!’).

Reinhard Kleist is one of the best comic book artists working in German. It is worth noting that he has also been awarded the pertinent Max & Moritz Prize. With 16 graphic novels to date, he has scooped up more than a dozen different prizes and awards. Kleist has also been nominated for the three major American awards for comic books – Eisner, Harvey and Ignatz.

Reinhard Kleist gives criticism where criticism is due – in his travelogue and in ‘Castro’: He makes no secret of the catastrophic conditions in Cuba under and after Castro. He draws as much attention to the arbitrary persecution of political opponents as he does to the empty shelves in the supermarkets. This makes it clear that the revolution in Cuba devours its own children and steals their future. For his part, Kleist does not allow himself to pass judgement on the political conditions or on Castro’s career. He leaves his readers free to engage with the personality of Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolution project, and with its disastrous consequences. If you are looking for simple answers, you won’t find them in either of the two graphic novels. And this is precisely what makes the interplay between these books so valuable.

Reinhard Kleist: Havanna, published by Carlsen Verlag, 2008, 96 pages, EUR 19.90
Reinhard Kleist: Castro, published by Selfmadehero, 2011, 288 pages, EUR 19.90, Graphic Novel Paperback: INR 1,249 (Amazon)


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