‘Miami’ by Joan Didion

“Not Left but East,” was Andre Gide’s disillusioned comment when he returned from a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Like many of his fellow European intellectuals, he had thought of it as a utopia of progress. He concluded that the fabled omelette that could not be made without breaking eggs was, in fact, made of eggshells.

“Not Right but South” could sum up the theme of Joan Didion’s powerfully seductive exploration of the political maelstrom in Miami. She sees, in the vortex plotting by exiles against Castro’s Cuba and Ortega’s Nicaragua, and in the splintering rivalries among the exiles themselves, something far beyond ideology.

They have become, she argues--so vividly that you can smell every crushed frangipani blossom--an invasion, a tropicalization of the causes dear to the American Right; a contamination, if you like.

The shadowy missions, the secret fundings, the conspiracies beneath conspiracies, the deniable support by parts of the U.S. government and active discouragement by other parts--all these things have fostered a tensely paranoid style in parts of our own political life, Didion suggests.

Miami is us, and the tangled tales we heard recently of private armies and retired generals fighting their own lucrative wars provide something of a retrospective support for a thesis developed long before the Iran-gate hearings.

Thesis is not the right word, perhaps. The thought that a quarter-century of handling surrogate violence out of Miami has tropicalized our own processes is conveyed not so much by argument or a chain of evidence as by Didion’s peculiar method of assembling impressions, allusions and seemingly unrelated pictures.

She infiltrates a dream into us, the kind you awake from suddenly in the certainty that someone is lurking around the basement.

Didion notices, for example, that the language in “A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties,” an activist manifesto drawn up in 1980 by a group of prominent conservatives, has an unidiomatic ring, as if translated from Spanish. Her suggestion is not that it was written in Spanish, but that the authors had been somehow Hispanicized.

She goes on to note, not without relish, that one activist “freedom fighter,” arrested for weapons possession, told of a plot to assassinate the U.S. ambassador in Costa Rica to provide a pretext for military intervention. The ambassador, Lewis Tambs, was one of the manifesto’s framers. Tropicalization indeed.

The groundwork for Didion’s purposeful intuitions is accomplished in the body of her book. It is a complex and highly flavored portrait of Miami’s Cuban community, mainly in its political aspects.

She begins with the long tradition of exile activity in the city. “Florida,” she writes, “is that part of the Cuban stage where declamatory exits are made, and side deals.”

Jose Marti, leader of the Cuban independence fight, raised money there. So did Carlos Prio Socarras, fighting the dictators Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista. So did Batista, preparing to return and overthrow Prio. So did Fidel Castro, through the once-more-exiled Prio, arranging to evict Batista. So have dozens of anti-Castro fund-raisers ever since--including Prio until his death in 1977.

Didion gives us a graveyard, of course; she starts with one, in fact. Prio is buried at Woodlawn Park, not far from Machado. “Havana vanities come to dust in Miami,” she writes of the city and the community that she calls, for its febrile schemes, “long on rumor, short on memory.”

She writes of the separate style of life of the Cubans in Miami, emphasizing the plethora of shoe stores and the photographers’ shops decorated with birthday pictures of 15-year-olds wearing fancy dresses and “sultry” looks. To get her surface effects, Didion verges now and then on the ethnically offensive.

On the other hand, she is making a large as well as an acute point when she observes that although a lot of Spanish is spoken in Los Angeles and New York, only in Miami is Spanish heard. Heard, that is, in the best restaurants, hotels and bank penthouses. In Miami, Spanish is a language of power.

She writes of the apparent assimilation of the upper levels of the community into the city’s life and ruling structures; but at the same time, she notices the profound differences. She describes a reunion of the veterans of the Bay of Pigs expedition, after which some of the participants go back to hang out at sleazy bars and gun shops while others take their briefcases to their air-conditioned offices. The point is that armed exile and the mystique of unending struggle is common to all of them.

Didion writes of the fierce and sometimes bloody rivalries inside the Cuban community, of the pressures and reprisals exercised against those who suggest negotiating with Castro, or who emphasize political over military struggle.

She notes that the combative mystique goes beyond ideology; that there are anti-Castro Cubans who call themselves Socialists and anarchists; that the fight has to do with a sense of patria --"motherland,” literally, but essentially untranslatable--and that this sense is indistinguishable from the concept of personal honor.

It is a striking point. It goes some way towards explaining the extraordinary mix of collaboration and profound misunderstanding between the Cubans and the U.S. government agencies that have attempted to use them, and still do.

Ever since the 1962 missile crisis, she writes, Washington has wavered between containing the exiles and encouraging them on their missions. For their part, the Cubans waver between wanting to trust Washington and a sense of feeling used and betrayed by it.

When President Reagan came in, there was a temporary conviction that something would be done, she reports; but later this was replaced by the conviction that nothing had changed and that the bellicose signals were essentially an effort by the Administration to keep its right-wing supporters in check.

Didion’s point, of course, is that they were not kept in check; instead, via conspiracy, gun-running and macho-looking outfits, they were Cubanized.

In any book of Didion’s, style counts at least as much as argument. It is style that lends conviction and that raises a doubt or two.

The writing in “Miami” is masterful, it is overwhelming. It is like those rare safaris where from the start, you know you are in good hands. Every detail will be intelligently and often brilliantly arranged. You fasten your seat belt without being told because there will be danger--which you will survive--and big game--which will not survive you.

There are mannerisms: incantatory repetitions of a phrase, odd inversions for rhythm or emphasis. Quotes are selected not necessarily to prove a point but to adorn an effect that is always Didion’s. In a sense, the author’s style is to expository prose what opera is to theater. The brilliance of the coloratura occasionally makes up for a gap in dramatic or even musical logic.

Didion’s reportage is highly personal. Sometimes, the power of her style does her an injustice. It can suggest more of a claim to omniscience than she is really making.

On a luxury hunting expedition, there are moments when you may look out the window and see some casually outfitted huntsman trudging along. You may wonder whether his experience is more authentic than yours. Didion’s tour is overarranged, but that is a genuine lion’s carcass strapped to our fender.