Author: Leonardo Padura Fuentes
Translated from the Spanish by John King
Publisher: Grove/ Atlantic, Inc.
Price: $13.00 (Paperback)
On the afternoon of January 21 I went to ten Hoor Hall on the UA campus to hear a talk by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura Fuentes (often referred to as Leonardo Padura).
The promotional materials were irresistible. Padura has won the Cuban National Prize for Literature and the Princesa de Asturias de las Letras Prize in Spain—often considered the “Spanish Nobel.” After a distinguished career as journalist—a dangerous career in Cuba—Padura refocused on his own writing and is now the author of several stand-alone novels, most notably “The Man Who Loved Dogs” which explores the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico, two volumes of stories, three movie scripts, and several books of essays . Most of these works have been translated into the world’s major languages.
His most famous creation, however is the Havana detective Mario Conde, a smart, rebellious personality, lover of tobacco, rum and women. In the first four Conde novels, he’s a policeman solving crimes in Havana.
Padura’s talk at UA concerned the genesis of the character Mario Conde, and a discussion of the ways in which a detective series can subtly explore not just who done it but also constitute a commentary on the social, cultural, political currents in any society. Inherent in Conde’s investigation will be an illumination of the problems of Cuban culture: prostitution, gambling, alcoholism, hunger, poverty, a sense of hopelessness in the face of government restrictions.
Padura remarked that Conde had no business being a policeman—in his attitude toward authority and repression, he is a kind of anti-cop— but, nevertheless, he is.
Conde often skates close to the edge of trouble with the Cuban Supreme Leader and the party.
(Padura himself has practiced a kind of brinksmanship with the authorities and has been criticized by more radical writers for not condemning the regime more explicitly and vociferously. But Padura lives today on the outskirts of Havana in the house he was born in and feels so thoroughly Cuban he would neither flee for a life “to the north” nor want to be exiled from Cuba, torn from his roots.)
In the latest Conde, the sixth, Mario has been off the force for 8 years. He is writing and cobbling together a living in the used book market—which Padura says is a perfect job for Conde since he is all around the city searching for used books and on the streets selling them, keeping in touch with what is going on—but, like many a hero, he is called back, to become a kind of “private detective in a country with neither detectives nor private people….”
A storm has toppled an ancient mango tree at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s place on the outskirts of Havana, and there, among the roots, is a skeleton, a man of about 60, shot twice, probably around 1958, just BEFORE Hemingway left Cuba permanently. If Hemingway didn’t kill him, who did?
Police Inspector Palacios wants the situation investigated, quietly, informally. Conde agrees and as always is conflicted. While a child, Conde had actually glimpsed Hemingway on what was perhaps his last day in Cuba. As a young writer, Conde lionized Hemingway. Like many another, he was infatuated with Hemingway’s exploits and his prose style. Then he learned of how Hemingway turned on old friends like Fitzgerald and of his overlong allegiance to Stalinism during the Spanish Civil War, and became disgusted with what to him looked like Hemingway’s bloodlust. The countless stuffed heads at the Finca, animals killed just for the pleasure of killing, he found revolting. He would “love to find out that it was Hemingway who killed that guy.”
Conde commences sleuthing, examining the crime scene, talking to old men alive at that time, reading up on Hem in the Biblioteca Nacional, and Padura carries the novel forward in alternating chapters—in the present tense and from Hemingway’s point of view, in 1958. This technique, way more inventive than the normal police procedural, is nearly metafictional, straining the bounds of realism. Further muddying the line between fact and fabulism, the thoughts flowing through Ernest’s mind are so convincing that the reader must struggle to keep in mind this is a fictional Ernest. There was no corpse in Hem’s garden.
We learn, as Conde learns, a lot about that fictional Hemingway’s attitudes, fears, fits of temper, weaknesses, contradictions: he can be cold and selfish, but is generous and kind to the 30 Cubans who depend on him for a living. Writing has become a nearly impossible struggle. His health is failing. Depression, alcohol, high blood pressure, all affect him and his paranoia is justified: the FBI is spying on him. We, and Conde, learn what happened in 1958, but that “fact” is among the least important of what we learn about Hemingway, about Conde, about Cuba.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.