A few years ago I was co-organizer in Havana of a conference that eventuated in the publication of the book entitled Basques in Cuba (2016). My collaborator was a famed political exile and extraordinary figure in Basque letters, Joseba Sarrionandia. In addition to our conference we were working on an English-language translation of his poetry. That anthology is now completed and should be published within the next several months (our working title is “Prisons and Exiles”). But that is another story.
Joseba insisted at the time that I consider arranging for English translation and publication by the Center for Basque Studies a book entitled A medianoche by a Basque former priest Javier Arzuaga. I read it as a favor and was dumbfounded. Arzuaga was the priest of the parish that included La Cabaña fortress, presided over by Che and the site of show trials, brief imprisonment and then execution of certain officials in the army and government of Fulgencio Batista. For the first four months of the process, Arzuaga was permitted to accompany condemned men for the few hours before their extermination. He was present at fifty-five executions before suffering a nervous breakdown.
Arzuaga describes his encounters with Che and Fidel, as well as his own evolution as a supporter of the revolution to critic of it. He provides extraordinary human profiles of the revolutionary officials conducting the proceedings, as well as of several of the condemned men. Particularly riveting was his internal crisis of conscience, since Arzuaga had become estranged from the Catholic hierarchy (he eventually left the priesthood) and doubted the very message of redemption and an afterlife that he employed to console the doomed men.
As a 78-year-old writer in the twilight of a lengthy career, I cannot begin to estimate how many books I have read—certainly thousands. Yet I can say that none has been more disturbing or memorable than At Midnight.