With the ongoing popularity of translated crime-fiction on our shores; Shots Ezine are delighted to showcase another important novel published by Bitter Lemon Press. More information on this interesting imprint is available from :-www.bitterlemonpress.com
After years of success in various countries across Europe, the detective novels of Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes (right) have finally started to appear in English. This spring, two novels featuring his charismatic and atypical policeman Lieutenant Mario Conde are being published in the UK. The first, Adios Hemingway (Canongate) has already been critically well received. The second, Havana Red (Bitter Lemon Press) comes out in April. Here, Stephen Wilkinson, who has a PhD on the subject of Cuban detective writing, introduces his work and talks to Padura about Havana Red.
Until Leonardo Padura began writing detective novels in the early 1990s, the genre in Cuba was a medium through which an attempt had been made at inculcating the masses in the correct modes of behaviour in a socialist society. Understandably, as writers struggled to marry the exigencies of this didactic task with the need to tell a thrilling tale, the quality of the massive output in novels, short stories, radio plays and TV serials was varied to say the least.
Borrowing heavily from similar formulas adopted in the former socialist bloc of Eastern Europe, the Cuban genre had some successes but these were outstanding in the main because they shone against a mass of mediocrity. All too often anodyne policemen chased ‘evil’ CIA infiltrators and sympathisers in hackneyed plots that held little suspense.
Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the real world that sustained this fictional counterpart disappeared, and the way was clear for a revitalisation of the genre. In stepped Padura with his four novels Las cuatro estaciones (The Four Seasons) all set in 1989, the cataclysmic year in which the Berlin Wall came down.
Just as in the US during the 1930s Dashiell Hammett transformed the detective story from the genteel drawing room mysteries that had been popular in the prosperous twenties into the hard-boiled thrillers more befitting the gangster age, Padura effected a similar genre shift in Cuba.
Instead of being a family man with an impeccable socialist cv, Padura’s Lieutenant Conde is a divorcee and a drinker with a heavy sense of irony who, instead of chasing CIA men, tracks down corrupt officials and home grown crooks in a Havana that is familiar - crumbling buildings, street girls and shortages.
Havana Red, or Mascaras (Masks), as it was originally called in Spanish, is the third in the series but the first to be published in English. It is a deceptively complex novel. On one level it is a well-executed whodunnit about the murder of a transvestite in a Havana Park and reads as well as any Ruth Rendell mystery. But on another level it is an examination of Cuban attitudes towards homosexuality and a revisiting of themes first aired publicly by the 1993 Oscar-nominated film Strawberry and Chocolate - namely the persecution of Cuban artists and writers in the early years of the revolution because they were homosexuals.
In addition, as the title ‘Masks’ implies, there is a recurrent theme in the novel that deals with hypocrisy, both of officialdom as well as in daily life in Cuba. It is a theme familiar to those who follow Cuban culture closely, but may come as a surprise to those who have a stereotypical view of the island.
For those who tend to support the revolution blindly and those who tend to attack it from a position of ideological ignorance, this book should be particularly challenging. For it is clear that Padura is a critical voice from within. At times the sarcasm and behaviour of his policeman indicates an almost heretical attitude. Yet Padura remains in Cuba and is celebrated, certainly by the artistic community and the general population, as one of the nation’s greatest authors.
Padura’s presence in the island and his novels are a great achievement because they illustrate that Cuban socialism is not as repressive as its enemies claim it to be, while at the same time showing that Cuba is perhaps not as perfect as some of its friends might want us to believe.
Padura’s Havana is a heterogeneous place, where the macro politics of the Cold War, the blockade and the confrontation with the United States is not mentioned but broods ominously behind the text where the characteristic scarcities and contradictions of the 1990s are ever present. Padura’s reality is thus carefully nuanced and not easily bracketed into any ideological point of view.
In a sense therefore, Padura exemplifies the maturity of Cuban socialism in that it has been able to produce an author of such ability and education (his influences are wide-ranging - from Shakespeare to Salinger, Cervantes to Montalban, Mozart to Lennon) who is able to create a credible fictional Cuban world that is recognisable to visitors and Cubans alike and which is relevant to the times we are living through.
Some Cuban politicians might feel uncomfortable reading these stories, but then that is precisely the kind of popular literature that Gramsci called for. True art, said Gramsci, is about depicting life as it is now - whereas politics is always about some great future that is going to be. For that reason, he explained, the politician would always be at loggerheads with the artist.
Padura is such an artist. He makes the reader sit up and think, using the medium of the detective story not to propagandise but to philosophise. His novels might be described as morality tales for the post-Soviet era.
SW: There are a number of things that distinguish this novel from others in the Cuban detective genre. The most salient is the theme of the persecution of homosexuality in Cuba. Why did you choose this subject?
LP: I chose this theme because it is bound up in Cuba with the marginalisation of a number of important intellectuals who were homosexual. The case of Virgilio Piñera, our most important dramatist, storywriter, poet and novelist, is perhaps the most well known and for this reason his story inspired me, although the novel does not relate his story exactly.
What happened in the 1970s to this group of writers, actors, painters etc., was a debt that was still unpaid by Cuban society. This episode had been covered in a mantle of silence almost as if it had never happened. So I made this my theme.
I also chose it because at the same time it gave me the opportunity to reflect more profoundly on the relationship between the artist and his world, the possibility of the transcendence of art and the impossibility of hiding the truth no matter how hard one tries.
For this reason I would prefer it if the novel is not read solely as the story of a dead transvestite and an old homosexual who helps a policeman uncover the truth, but as a metaphor for life in Cuba, a life in which the masks worn by people hide not only ‘sexual deviations’ but religious and social ideologies, considered sometimes inappropriate by the official orthodoxy.
SW: What is the position of homosexuality in Cuba today?
LP: Fortunately at the official level, things have changed and today there is more tolerance, although from time to time one hears about some crackdown of transvestites or such like. But today to be a homosexual in Cuba is not a political or a social problem, although I must say I am speaking here as someone who is not a homosexual. Nevertheless, deep down there is also a problem that is not entirely resolved and that is Cuban machismo, which has profound historic roots and which still tends to marginalize and criticise homosexuality. On the other hand, more and more, gays and lesbians are doing as they please, they live together as couples, and they make their sexuality obvious with complete disregard for the old sexual prejudices.
SW: Another thing that stands out is the character of Conde, the policeman. At times his humour borders on the sarcastic and his attitudes lead the reader to suspect that he views the socialist system, especially that of the Soviet Union with disdain. Many British readers will find this surprising because, given the impression of Cuba they receive from the media here, they will have assumed that such a character would not be permitted to be published. Can you explain?
LP: For sure British readers will ask how it is possible that an author who lives, writes and publishes in Cuba can talk so freely about the reality of life in Cuba and even criticise decisions of the authorities. But this is the truth. I live in Cuba, I write in Cuba and my books have never been censored in Cuba. On the contrary, they have all won important prizes and they are all read widely even though the editions are much smaller than the demand that exists for them. What is certain is that in the 1990s the levels of tolerance increased. In the 1970s there was a repression as I mentioned before and in the 1980s I myself had difficulties for being labelled a person with “ideological problems.” But the cultural policy changed from the end of the 80s onwards, above all thanks to the work of the Union of Writers and Artists and the Ministry of Culture itself. But it could not have been otherwise because for a long while an artistic expression had been growing in the island that was very critical, very indignant and completely different to that which had gone before. This occurred in all the arts: theatre, cinema, painting and literature. My case is therefore not an isolated one. Nevertheless, where the was a huge change was in the detective genre where my first novel Pasado perfecto (Past Perfect) of 1991 broke all the rules that had characterised this literature in Cuba which had turned it into an official propaganda pamphlet with no literary value.
SW: Could you explain why you took the decision to transform the Cuban detective genre and how you did it?
LP: When I began to write the first novel in the series I did not propose to change anything. I simply had the intention to write a novel - and it is important to say that I had the plan to write a ‘novel’, which would have a detective character. It is important to emphasise the nature of this ‘character.’ Well, that is to say it would not be a typical detective novel. In the end it would have the characteristic of being a detective novel that would not resemble any of the Cuban detective novels that had been written up to that point. This was my intention. I wanted to write about a Cuban reality, with an incisive vision of this reality, from within Cuban reality. I have always understood literature as having a social function. Perhaps something that was lacking in Cuban detective writing previously was this social perspective. We are talking about novels where the most important thing had been to present a certain political content or where the aim was simply to tell a spy or detective adventure and nothing else.
The result was that my novel contrasted sharply with what had been done before and that set a standard for others to follow along a similar path of social investigation through detective novels. In essence, the same had been done in Spain by Vazquez Montalban, something similar in Mexico by Paco Ignacio Taibo II or long before that in the US by Hammett, Chandler and Chester Himes. The one thing that is for certain is the path along which the Cuban detective novel was heading led towards an artistic abyss and I did not wish to throw myself off the same cliff of insignificance or pure political propaganda. As far as the literary part goes, I did all I could with the language and characterisations so that they would be interesting and representative. I played with structure and the verbal tenses. Above all I tried to make literature in the best way I knew how.
SW: There is another theme in the novel and that is personal moral corruption. It is a theme that has occurred in the works of other Cuban writers too. It is as though in Cuba there is a double morality and everyone in some way has something to hide. Can you explain this?
LP: Corruption is a universal phenomenon and one from which the socialist countries could not escape either. Today in Cuba they have recently laid down new economic rules in an attempt to prevent the ‘diversion’ of currency and occurrences of corruption. Over the years there has been a number of ministers and the bosses of companies who have been replaced because of corruption. But alongside this high level corruption, there is a medium level that is very present in Cuban life that is driven by the scarcity of material goods on the one hand and some very strict rules on the other. In order to change your house or buy a car, for example, one must obtain official permission and this leads to some people bribing officials in order to get it. Now this might seem incomprehensible to those who live outside Cuba, but the terrible thing is that when cases come to light it seems incomprehensible to many Cubans too. Finally, there is also a small-scale corruption that is sometimes not so small-scale and that is pilfering from the workplace in order to make ends meets more effectively.
SW: Outside Cuba you have had a lot of success in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Brazil and Portugal. Surely the possibility to live elsewhere exists for you. Why have you chosen to stay when so many artists and writers have left?
LP: I have no interest to live outside Cuba for many reasons and the first is that I am Cuban and it is my country despite its problems, limitations and shortages. I need my surroundings in order to write. I must know my reality in order to interpret it and if this was not enough, I like living in Cuba even though at times I wish I were far away. And even when I find myself at odds with what is going on I wish to stay. I believe it is one’s right not to be in agreement with everything: I am a thinking being and as such I must exercise the right to think.
On the other hand, my character is such that I am very attached to my place and I think that to be far away, in exile let’s say, would be a terrible condemnation. The necessity to know that one belongs to a place is very strong and I am bound to the island.
SW: You have now written six or seven novels in the Conde series. No doubt you had no idea he was going to be so popular when you began. How many more are you going to write?
LP: I have written six in total although I have other novels that are not in the detective series. At first I thought of writing only one novel with the character Conde. That was Pasado perfecto which was published in 1991. Afterwards I decided to write the series Las cuatro estaciones (The Four Seasons) and they are Vientos de cuaresma (The Winds of Lent) 1994, Mascaras (Havana Red) 1997, and the last one Paisaje de otono (Autumn Landscape) in 1998. Three years later I took up Conde again with the short novel Adios Hemingway, which has been published under the same title in English by Canongate. Recently I have finished another novel La neblina del ayer (The Fog of Yesterday) which is going to be released in Spain in June and then afterwards in Cuba. At the moment I have no intention of writing another but one never knows. But one thing is for sure I will not abandon this character so dear to me, and that in the future, I do not know when, he will reappear in another of my novels.
© 2005 Dr Stephen Wilkinson
Havana Red is available at all good bookshops, both online and conventional [published by Bitter Lemon Press].
|Webmaster: Tony 'Grog' Roberts [Contact]|