Finishing the first draft of a novel you’re proud of is a feeling worth more than wealth. And I choose my words carefully. As this is a novel about wealth – or lack thereof, or, better still, the lack of desire for wealth. The main character of the story is Tony ‘the Cuban’ Zerafa, a Maltese man, cook, socialist and father who, in the late 70’s, visited Cuba as part of a socialist training camp. There he learnt how little a man needs to be happy. He learnt to admire men’s work-ethic, their joie de vivre, even when living and working in oppressive climes. And now, as I customarily like to do, I am forcing on the Cuban the revelatory Proust Questionnaire. I want to know him more, and I want you, dear readers, to know him as well.
So here it goes and, after this, another, very important character will take the Proust Questionnaire: Gabriela Zerafa, the Cuban’s daughter.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A beach. A clear night sky. The sea at my feet. Mojito in one hand a cigar in the other. And my daughter at my feet.
What is your greatest fear?
Becoming my father.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
My cowardice. Everyone knows this. I think they call me the Cuban as an insult. To remind me what I could have been. To remind me of the one time I chickened out.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Greed. Especially the kind of greed that festers in the minds of those who were raised – happily – with nothing and grow up to be ashamed of their simple roots and think it is their duty to become something better.
Which living person do you most admire?
After the death of Mintoff and Castro I would have to say my daughter.
What is your greatest extravagance?
The mint garden I have on my roof. It’s the only luxury I need.
What is your current state of mind?
Worried. Proud. I don’t know. Don’t ask me such mind-blowingly complicated fucking questions!
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
On what occasion do you lie?
I can’t remember a single moment in my life when I’ve needed to lie. I think I’m too simple to be a good liar.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My greying hair. I’m not bothered by age – it’s not that – but it’s that it’s making me look an awful lot like my father!
Which living person do you most despise?
Those people, those new breed of hippies, weed-smoking, politically-correct, dictatorial students that are brainwashing my daughter. I know it’s a father’s duty to step aside, but I can’t take being replaced in her life by those pussies!
What is the quality you most like in a man?
An obsessive work-ethic.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Fighting spirit. Gabriela, my daughter has it in abundance. My wife, no, not at all. She’s too stoic to be a fighter. God knows she’s sucked the fighting spirit out of me.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
According to my daughter, it’s: “that’s socialism for you.” As for words, it would have to be fuck, wouldn’t it?
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
The two women who I’m generationally sandwiched between: my Ma and my daughter. After that, of course, it’s got to be Cuba! My distant, tantalising, hard-core mistress!
When and where were you happiest?
When I was rolling cigars in the Partagas cigar factory of Havana, working alongside poor men and women working shit-hard to produce cigars so that people poorer than them have something good to smoke after a bitch of a day.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Not a talent I would like to have. Just an improvement on a talent I already have – the only one I have – cooking.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My laziness. It’s what’s stopped me, what’s always stopped me, from having the balls to carry out the dreams I always dreamed; be it staying in Cuba or going to fight as a revolutionary soldier, alongside other Cubans, in Angola.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My close working relationship with Dom Mintoff. I was one of his enforcers, his bullies, his right-fist. It was an honour, in the sepia, blood-red 1980’s, to have earned his trust, and to have fought alongside Malta’s undoubted saviour.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Anything so long as I was born somewhere in Cuba. Even as a mere fly on the wall of the Floridita. Anything!
Where would you most like to live?
You’re seriously fucking asking this? Do you know my fucking nickname?
What is your most treasured possession?
An old baseball I got when I watched a kids baseball game in Havana. The only souvenir I got back from Cuba. I gave it to Gabriela as a toy. She used to use it as an add-on to her gymnastics routine. And that, to me, makes it all the more valuable.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Not being proud of my daughter.
What is your favorite occupation?
I only have one and I only need one: I’m a cook. It’s the only thing a fighter, a revolutionary, and a great lover of life, could be. Being a cook isn’t hard. But you need military-level discipline and balls to take on a post-shift drinking session with a bunch of cooks and chefs!
What is your most marked characteristic?
My sensitivity. I’m not joking! It’s the only reason I’m a socialist. And if you want proof, just look at my daughter. She’s a softie, I know it, I see it when she’s so desperate to help Mikey, her wheelchair-bound friend, or when she cries over Angelita, a girl I met in Cuba who died young of a heart condition. Her sensitivity – my sensitivity – is the whole reason she ever became a doctor.
What do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty and a lack of knowledge as to when to put down a good bet. I love friends who are willing to down a bet but are too stupid to ever win one.
Who are your favorite writers?
I don’t read. But I can remember every word Fidel Castro ever said.
Who is your hero of fiction?
Jesus is a good role model. Mintoff always compared him to Marx. And in a way, yes, I can see it, he was a Communist in his own way. I don’t mind him as a fairy-tale character.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Che Guevara. A man who left his own country to help fight and organise a revolution in another country, and who was willing to export his anti-imperialist fight to the four corners. He was a doctor too. Also a very sensitive man.
Who are your heroes in real life?
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it as many times as I fucking must: Fidel Castro and Dom Mintoff.
What are your favorite names?
I love the name Angelita. The little angel. I knew a girl called Angelita in Cuba. That’s what I wanted to call Gabriela when she was born. But my wife, Manwela, wouldn’t have it – it was too foreign for her provincial mind!
What is it that you most dislike?
Hippies. I can’t stand hippies. Especially if they’re vegetarians. Any person who can’t appreciate pork and smokes weed instead of cigars is an embarrassment to humanity. Believe me, I’ve seen the best of humanity!
What is your greatest regret?
Not staying in Cuba as a teenager. I could have been someone there. Could have lived up to my nickname. I know, on the other hand, if I had stayed there I would never have had Gabriela. So, in life, regret is really a poison chalice. Though of course, I’ll gladly drink from the poison chalice as I’ll gladly drink anything else.
How would you like to die?
Fighting. Young. Sane.