Man for all seasons

By Brendan de Caires

Havana Red (originally published in Spanish as Mascaras), by Leonardo Padura, trans. Peter Bush
Bitter Lemon Press, ISBN-10 1904-73809-5, ISBN-13 978-1904738091,
233 pp

Havana Black (originally published as Pasaja de otoño), by Leonardo Padura, trans. Peter Bush
Bitter Lemon Press, ISBN-10 1904-73815-X, ISBN-13 978-1904738152,
261 pp

Havana Blue (originally published as Pasado perfecto), by Leonardo Padura, trans. Peter Bush
Bitter Lemon Press, ISBN-10 1904-73822-2, ISBN-13 978-1904738220,
244 pp

Leonardo Padura

Leonardo Padura. Photo courtesy Bitter Lemon Press

Returning home from a baseball game at Shea Stadium, John Cheever confided to his journal that “The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain, but to describe 400 people under the lights reaching for a foul ball.” The novelist Don DeLillo brooded over this passage for years before composing the extraordinary opening chapter of his eight-hundred-page masterpiece Underworld. Recounting the experience to The New Yorker’s David Remnick, DeLillo admitted he had come to the draft unsure of what lay ahead: “All I wanted to do was write a fictional account of this ballgame [a playoff in the 1951 World Series] . . . I didn’t know whether I was writing a short story or a short novel, or a novel. But I did know that the dimensions of the Polo Grounds were my boundaries. I had no idea that I would go beyond this until after I had finished.”

Something similar seems to have happened to Leonardo Padura Fuentes. He started out trying to write a new kind of detective story, hoping perhaps to do no more than enliven a genre exhausted by formulaic plots (incorruptible Cuban police chasing CIA villains). But after attaining that modest goal, he kept on writing until he had produced a series of complex and surprisingly literary novels. So much so that, for all their inescapable genre constraints, the three reviewed here (part of a Havana Quartet whose final installment will soon be translated into English*) involve themselves in modern Cuban life in many of the same ways that DeLillo’s Underworld weaves itself around the Cold War years in America. Padura’s tetralogy covers a year in the life of a Cuban police detective, and uses his experiences to examine the country’s confused response to the dawning of the post-Soviet years.

Lieutenant Mario Conde is a detective who ought to have been a writer. He shows little aptitude for conventional police work, and palms most of it off on his partner Sergeant Palacios. The sergeant knows how to interrogate with guile, and has the patience for sifting through paperwork, but he allows El Conde, the Count (as he is universally known), to take all the important decisions. At first this seems odd, since Conde is characterised mainly through his bad habits: he smokes too much, drinks while on duty, frequently oversleeps, and has a tendency to come in to the office late, hungover, and unshaven. But Palacios, and Major Rangel, who heads the unit, put up with these irregularities because they both know that the Count has invaluable intuitions. These allow him to find his man when traditional methods fail. The Count is a sage of introspection, and once he has exercised his enviable grasp of the human elements in a given situation, he follows his instincts with a ferret-like tenacity.

Conde’s curiosity often requires a Keatsian level of self-sacrifice. While investigating the murder of a young homosexual in Havana Red, he decides to attend a gay soirée in the company of Alberto Marqués — the Marquess — a revered theatre director whose “deviance” (in the eyes of the Revolution’s bureaucrats) has cost him a prosperous livelihood. The Count and Marquess — whose nicknames suggest shared aristocratic prejudices — have nothing but contempt for the troglodytes who police Cuban culture, unleashing such zealous nonsense as the “parameterising” of art which preceded Marqués’s purge. Conde continues to have a predictably Latin American distrust of gay men, but he knows too well how wrongheaded the Revolution can be in cultural matters, and he is willing to suspend judgement for an evening, to better understand Havana’s gays, lesbians, and transvestites.

At first he is surprised by the scale of the gay underground, and briefly unsettled by his failure to detect an attractive transvestite, but he soon warms to the gathering’s contrarian spirit, and even finds himself bedding a strange girl with temptingly diminutive buttocks. When she invites him to some rough sodomy he obliges, and finds himself strangely stirred by her delighted squeal of mock disgust: “How horrible!”

Summarised like this, the incident could be mistaken for a gratuitous digression, but the rest of the plot suggests that this transgressive moment provides Conde with a hint that will later help him find the killer. The odd detail also gives his character a weirdly convincing human depth a lesser writer would not have dared try for. In fact, one of the Count’s most endearing attributes is that he’s never above a bit of “optical frisking” when a tasty señorita passes by. But Padura never simply indulges his character’s lechery; he uses it to develop the backstory that is always pressing in on the action, or to convey a sense of what it is like to grow up in Havana. Here, for example, is what Conde sees when he steps out one evening:

He tried to keep up with the prodigious pace of a no less prodigious woman who enjoyed the confidence of all the benefits of cross-breeding: her long blond hair swooning it was so lank, fell on the mountable buttocks of a black houri, an arse of strictly African proportions, finely flexed rotundities descending two compact thighs to wild animal ankles.

Two failed marriages have made the Count wary of serious relationships, so he is usually content just to look. Occasionally he masturbates in his apartment, sharing the moment only with his fighting fish Rufino. Even here, Padura is careful not to miss a trick. The fish is named after Conde’s grandfather, and that link licenses a reminiscence about cockfighting, a sport that the old man loved. In Havana Black, we learn that the Count’s techniques of self-abuse have a sort of lineage too, one worthy of Philip Roth’s Portnoy:

José Antonio, jerker extraordinaire if ever there was, skilled practitioner of the phantom jerk, the Capuchin, the two-hander, the soap sudder, the mongrel, and seven other varieties (including the suicidal jerk of the bat, the one you could only achieve by hanging by one arm from the eaves of a house, as you looked through a bathroom window and rubbed away with the other), had advised him that the best way to do it (especially if it was the first time) was by moistening yourself with saliva: saliva’s hot and slippery as if you’d put it up a woman or a sow . . .

That may sound like a lot of information for a fictional detective’s private habits, but it is precisely this attention to politically incorrect details that makes Conde so authentic. The quiet accumulation of his memories allows us to experience the background textures of a whole generation of Cuban life without Padura having to contrive plots that would cover the same ground.

Padura calls these books “false crime novels”, and says that he chose detective fiction as “a pretext to get to other places.” Some of these — the Count’s childhood, life in Havana — are obvious enough, but others may require a little background knowledge to be fully appreciated. Padura is a prominent literary critic, and his list of influences runs from fellow Spanish-language crime writers like Manuel Vasquez Montalban (author of The Angst Ridden Executive) to American heavyweights like Salinger and Hemingway. (The Count shares many of Padura’s tastes, and announces on more than one occasion his ambition to write something “squalid and moving” like Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”.) But when Padura says he wants to take Cuban crime writing “to other places,” he is almost certainly thinking of two particular American writers, Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler.

Before Hammett created Sam Spade and the Continental Op, literary sleuths were largely a holdover from nineteenth-century English literature, and they brought with them many of its assumptions. Holmes, Poirot, and Father Brown are characters who are impelled by an orderly universe. They clear up the mess that criminals leave behind. They arrange apparently random fragments into meaningful wholes, and they allow society to return to normal once justice has been done. “The point of the Sherlock Holmes stories,” writes one critic, “ is to dispel magic and mystery, to make everything explicit, accountable, subject to scientific analysis.”

Hammett swept that optimism away. In Chandler’s words, he “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley”. His laconic gumshoes relied on cunning as much as ingenuity, and they harboured no illusions that what they were doing served justice. The cold amorality of the Continental Op really belongs to the absurd universe that maddens Meursault in Camus’s L’Etranger, for the Op has moved beyond the benign worldview of his literary forebears. Hardboiled detectives know that the official version is a polite fiction, and you must question every part of it if you want the bottom line. When you get there, don’t expect something pretty. Chandler described the new outlook like this:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising.

That is Conde’s world. It has to be. We meet him in 1989, as the Soviet Union stumbles towards its final collapse. Everyone in Cuba knows they are living through the end of an era, and few dare hope that it will end well.

Given that context, it is not surprising that these novels are fairly cerebral. In Red, for example, the key to the murder is a young man’s yearning for “transfiguration.” Alexis Aráyan, a homosexual, wants it badly enough to cross-dress even though he isn’t a transvestite. When Conde ponders the significance of such a deep-seated wish for change, Alberto Marqués outlines a theory of transvestism and soon we are into semiotics of red dresses. In Padura’s fiction, context is everything. An ideological stance, the political past — secrets, betrayals, fabrications — often say as much about a character as physical evidence or suspicious circumstances. Conde’s sensitivity to these webs of meaning makes him an ideal guide to the city’s hidden life, for he is rarely fooled by appearances and never deceived by rhetoric.

Nobody in Havana can leave their past behind. Their relationship with the “Muscovite mentality” that has ravaged the society is often a decisive factor in their role in the plot, and this is where Padura directs most of his creative energy. The solution to the Aráyan murder is presented almost as a formality; what really engages our attention are the cultural pressures that have driven Alexis to his death. As they form a friendship, Marqués helps Conde consider the Sartrean roots of the problem of self-transfiguration, and its psychology seems to run much deeper than homosexual guilt or frustration. In one of several reminiscences of happier days in Paris, Marqués remembers having an epiphany at Les Femmes:

I realised I’d come upon a great happening, all transmutation and masks, that was less famous but more real and intense than a Venetian Carnival. The idea of the chrysalis and the feeling that a huge insect had brushed up against me held the key to what I was living and seeing: a party for insects. I remember thinking, among those transvestites, the movement’s cutting-edge pioneers, that man can create, paint, invent, or re-create colours and forms he finds around himself and impose them on material, what is beyond his body, but is unable or powerless when it comes to modifying his own organism. Only a transvestite can transform it radically and, like a butterfly, paint himself, make his body the subject for his master work, convert his sexual emanations into colour.

This sort of high-falutin talk would sink most crime fiction, but Padura pulls it off brilliantly. He manages to convince you that Havana is the sort of place where people readily discuss existential questions without apology. That is not, of course, to say that they are stiff-backed and academic about it. Late in the novel, the Count attends a public reading given by the poet Eligio Riego — another artist who has been muzzled by the revolution — and as he marvels at the great man’s worldly good-humour, Riego tells his audience:

We Catholics are too serious when it comes to the divine. We lack the vital, primitive happiness of the Greeks, Yorubas, or Hindus who dialogue with their Gods and sit them at their table. I’ve always thought it wrong, for example, to ignore the humour that exists in the Holy Scriptures, to scorn the holy smile that God gave and communicated to us, and to forget how Jesus’s first great miracle was to convert wine into water . . . A very clear sign from on high.

Book chat, religion, politics, death — they commingle very naturally in Padura’s world, and he never spoils the effect by taking himself too seriously.

Black and Blue are less metaphysical, but they are more tightly focused on the political unravelling that seemed to be taking place in 1989. Black delves into the corruption that allowed a handful of well-placed functionaries to make off with huge amounts of art and property when the Cuban middle class took flight in the 1960s. Miguel Forcade, a former Official Expropriator, turns up bludgeoned to death and castrated after returning from exile in Miami to visit his ailing father. There are the usual twists and turns as the Count closes in on the right solution, but most of the novel concentrates on the disastrous consequences of the country’s haphazard Revolution. For instance, when the Count thinks about Forcade, he remembers that “[the] power wielded by the National Office for Planning and the Economy was no small power: there passed through the hands of the man who would later become a sexless cadaver with fish-eaten eyes decisions on trade and people’s lives, on the investments of millions and possibilities for collective and individual futures, the authority to give, to move, to place, take away and defer, from almost Olympian heights . . .”

This exalted perch is forcefully contrasted with the ignominious fate of Conde’s best friend Skinny Carlos. Crippled in Angola by a sniper’s bullet, Carlos has become horribly obese in his wheelchair, despite the devoted care of his mother Josefina. The Count visits them whenever he has a spare hour, and the three have dinners which Josefina describes with a chef’s pride (“cod Basque-style, boiled rice, a Polish mushroom soup I’ve improved with cabbage, chicken giblets, tomato sauce, fried ripe plantain, and a radish, lettuce, and watercress salad”). In Vientos de cuaresma (the still-untranslated volume in this series), we learn that these descriptions are all wishful thinking. The many food shortages in the real Havana make Josefina’s meals as unlikely as Carlos’s nickname. Instead, the imaginary meals become a bittersweet index of the gap between the Revolution’s high ambitions and its depressing realities. When the Count worries about Carlos’s drinking all the time — to forget the pain of his existence — he tends to get angry at the world first, and then to assuage his guilt at not being able to change anything by going over to drink some rum too.

These moments of weltschmerz are codified in the oft-repeated lament that Skinny Carlos isn’t skinny any more. Wounded in a war that should have had nothing to do with him, Carlos becomes Padura’s saddest symbol of the human cost of abstract political commitments. With that in mind, however, it should perhaps be emphasised that for all his attacks on Cuba’s political hypocrisy, Padura has never wanted to nor tried to live anywhere else. He remains, in all his interviews, fiercely proud of his country, right down to the suburb of Mantilla where he grew up.

There is one moment in Black that beautifully catches these tensions between the present and the past. It comes shortly after the Count has fled from grunt work at the National Archives to the quays of San Isidro. On the way there he passes “anti-aesthetic stores on the sea side and unfriendly blocks on the city side: brick and concrete blocks built to the single criterion of utility with no concession to beauty.” Finally free of this oppressive architecture, the Count cannot but turn philosophical. So we get this:

As he breathed the putrid stench of the bay, the Count realised why he had fled the Archive where the legal memory of his country rested: he couldn’t care less whether he found anything. An unhealthy apathy had invaded him at the revelation of so much dead past, so much existence reduced to certificates, declarations, forms, extracts, protocols, registers, in duplicate and even triplicate, emptied of passion and blood: the whole devalued detritus of history without which it wasn’t possible to live but with which it was impossible to coexist. The violent revelation that all was reduced to a piece of paper, numbered and filed according to entries of birth, marriage, divorce, and death had been far too apocalyptic an illumination for his spirit on the eve of his birthday and liberation from work: the arid wake of being thirty-six less one day exposed him to the alarming futility of his efforts, as man, as human-being, as supposedly intelligent animal.

Havana Blue is really the first Conde novel, and it shows signs of Padura’s apprenticeship in the crime genre. On one occasion he even has Conde stand in front of a mirror so that we can get a better look! But aside from this and a few other awkward moments, this novel feels like the most personal of the three, and the angriest. An ironic author’s note reads in part: “Any resemblance to real people and events is then merely that plus cussedness on the part of reality. / Consequently, nobody should feel alluded to in the novel. Equally, nobody should feel excluded if they do see some pertinent reference or other.”

The novel is set in the months following the sensational trial and execution of General Arnoldo Ochoa — who was detained with thirteen other senior officials on charges of corruption and drug smuggling. In the novel, Rafael Morín, head of a government enterprise, has gone missing after an Old Year’s party. He is the Count’s former schoolmate, but was never his friend. Like nearly all of Padura’s bureaucrats, Morin is a nauseatingly self-righteous character who is ultimately shown to be a fraud. What angers the Count is that he knew all that decades before.

In one of many flashbacks, we witness the closing of the school’s literary magazine — for ideological reasons. The teacher who has taught creative writing has enough backbone to be properly outraged and she makes a scene even though it will certainly mean the loss of her job. The students hesitate, caught between the fear of losing their work to oblivion and the fear of offending their headmaster. At this point Rafael first demonstrates how readily he will sacrifice principles to please his superiors. He compounds this offence by dating Tamara, the prettiest girl in the school, and later puts himself entirely beyond the pale by marrying her and living in a luxurious mansion. (After his disappearance, the mansion’s interior will be described in minute detail, and used to draw a damning contrast to the squalid dwelling in which the Count subsequently interviews Rafael’s mother.)

Like many other characters in these novels, Rafael has transformed his public persona into a grotesque distortion of his original self. When the sordid truth about his underhand dealings at the government enterprise is revealed, our only comfort is the knowledge that the Count has finally achieved a longstanding fantasy to have sex with the lovely Tamara. Conde may end up with the girl, but Rafael has had half a lifetime of money, power, and luxury while poor, honourable Carlos has languished in his wheelchair. Hammett and Chandler would have understood.

The Count eventually leaves the force and becomes a full-time writer. Padura’s way, perhaps, of saying that it is never too late to be what you should have been. In one of his more inscrutable moments the Count muses:

. . . if you know what someone is like, you know what he might do and what he’d never do . . . because sometimes that’s exactly what people do, namely what they could never do, and he’d add for good measure: While I’m a policeman I’ll never stop smoking or stop thinking that one day I’ll write a very romantic, very sweet, very squalid novel, but I’ll also plug away at routine enquiries.

Padura has written at least four such novels and, now that the Count has become a leisurely man of letters, there is a distinct possibility that he’ll write several more.

* The English translations have not been published in the same order as the Spanish originals. To avoid confusion, I have referred to the English titles whenever possible and left the zig-zagging time scheme out of consideration altogether. Pasado perfecto (Havana Blue, 2007) was first published in 1991; Vientos de cuaresma (Havana Yellow, forthcoming in 2008) in 1994; Mascaras (Havana Red, 2005) in 1997; and Paisaje de otoño (Havana Black, 2006) in 1998. In Spanish the series is known as Las cuatros estaciones — “The Four Seasons”.

Eliseo Diego provides one of the epigraphs for Havana Blue.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2007

Brendan de Caires was born and grew up in Guyana, and currently lives in New York. He has worked as an editorial assistant, sub-editor, and assistant editor for various publishers, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, and the Stabroek News.