Our new Notable Narrative, “The Yankee Comandante,” by New Yorker staff writer David Grann, is part love story, part political drama, part spy thriller. Published last week, it’s the saga of William Morgan, an American ne’er-do-well who drifted from vocation to vocation (including fire-eater) before finding his way to Cuba, working his way up through Fidel Castro’s ranks and marrying a rebel named Olga Rodriguez. Here, a taste, is the kicker of Grann’s opening:
The head of the firing squad shouted, “Attention!” The gunmen raised their Belgian rifles. Morgan feared for his wife, Olga—whom he had met in the mountains—and for their two young daughters. He had always managed to bend the forces of history, and he had made a last-minute plea to communicate with Castro. Morgan had believed that the man he once called his “faithful friend” would never kill him. But now the executioners were cocking their guns.
Grann, author of the New York Times best-seller The Lost City of Z and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, is known for his heavily reported and riveting reads, stories that have been anthologized in multiple volumes of The Best American Crime Writing and in The Best American Sports Writing, among others. What distinguishes “The Yankee Comandante” is the seamless and moving combination of evocative details (“Morgan borrowed a knife and flicked it at a tree at least twenty yards away. It hit the target so squarely that some rebels gasped.”), the stunning access to Olga Rodriguez in her old age (“I still have the spirit of a revolutionary.”), its heartbreaking final twist (“I can’t give up.”) and its suspense (“But now the executioners were cocking their guns.”)
“It was important to let the story unfold not just chronologically but also in the way people were seeing it at the time – with their confusion, sometimes with their blinders, sometimes with their mistakes,” Grann tells Storyboard in a Q-and-A that runs here tomorrow. “To let history unfold the way history really unfolds, which is not omnisciently, not always with the benefit of hindsight.”
Check back tomorrow for our long talk with Grann about this story and more.