“Where the borders are”

Leonardo Padura talks to Gavin O’Toole about the line between journalism and literature, and freedom of expression in contemporary Cuba

Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba’s most celebrated contemporary writers, is perhaps best known for his prize-winning Havana Quartet, a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Mario Conde. (In his most recent novel published in English translation, Havana Fever (2009), Conde investigates a forty-year-old murder after he becomes obsessed with a beautiful singer who died in mysterious circumstances in the 1950s.) Padura has also written historical works and essays, and is a journalist. Reviewing three of Padura’s novels in the August 2007 CRB, Brendan de Caires argued that “he started out trying to write a new kind of detective story . . . but after attaining that modest goal, he kept on writing until he had produced a series of complex and surprising literary novels.” On a recent visit to London, Padura spoke to Latin American Review of Books editor Gavin O’Toole. Their conversation is translated from the original Spanish. A longer version of this interview was originally published online in The Latin American Review of Books .

Gavin O’Toole: You have often referred to the importance of your experience as a journalist to your literary development, and many Latin American writers have been journalists. What are the reasons for this relationship between journalism and literature in Latin America?

Leonardo Padura: Writers — in the world, but particularly Latin America — in general need to have two jobs: literature is a second job often done on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, because royalties are insufficient to live on. In the Latin American case, journalism has been very generous in taking in writers, I think — looking at this from a distance, journalism has been a generous profession. Often in newspapers, certain writers, as was my case, have had certain privileges that allow us to do a different type of journalism, that give us to time to write.

I began working on a cultural magazine where I wrote book and theatre reviews, and I worked there three years, but it was at that time I started to write. I wrote several stories and a small novel that was published several years later. In that period in Cuba, books took a long time to come out — it took four or five years from handing the manuscript to the publisher to reaching the bookshop. In 1983, when I was nearly finishing this novel, I began working at a newspaper, and I worked there six years. This was called Juventud Rebelde, it comes out in the afternoons — an evening paper. In those years, however, I did not have time to write, because I dedicated myself completely to journalism and writing long reports, above all about historical themes, historical characters, lost legends of Cuban folklore that needed a lot of research.

Writing these was a little different because they were like stories; I could not write literature per se, but it was a stage during which I wrote essays, practised the skills of literary writing. First, I got to know a great deal about the history, geography, and atmosphere of Cuba, because the job took me across the country, and, secondly, I had time to write those works, elaborate on them, seek out an angle, a distinctive perspective. In 1989, when I left the newspaper and went to work at another literary magazine and I again had time to write, I became aware of everything I had learned in those years at the newspaper.

So in the 1990s, I began to work at this other literary magazine called La Gaceta de Cuba, and immediately I wrote the novel Pasado Perfecto, which here is translated as Havana Blue, and it was something that I had been building up inside. I wrote the first version very quickly — in three months — then I worked on it a great deal, but it was like a necessity for me to write, and I realised that I had learned how to write while working on the newspaper.

I believe Hemingway was right when he said that the writer at a given moment of his career must leave newspapers. So that’s what happened to me: journalism was absorbing all my possibilities, all my time, my intelligence at that moment. When I separated myself from the newspaper, I realised that was a moment in which I had matured in age and knowledge sufficiently to write.

GO: You have spoken of the advantages of making a career as a novelist after or through journalism, but what are the disadvantages? Are there any obstacles to do with the writing style of journalism, or disadvantages of having been a journalist, in terms of developing a novelist’s perspective?

LP: No. I don’t think so. I think that one has to learn to differentiate the distinct languages one works with. For example, I have also written books of essays, I have written a book of essays about about the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a writer of the Conquest era; two books about Alejo Carpentier; one about crime fiction, above all Hispanic-American crime fiction; various essays of one type or another; and I have always taken forward, side by side, the essay, journalism, and literature, the novel, alternating between one and the other . . .

I know when to stop when I must do journalism, essays, or novels. Because just as journalism gives an immediate take on reality, the novel must provide a permanent gaze. So one has to have at any given moment the capacity to know what particular thing is important at that moment, and upon what to reflect as a journalist, and which of these things can change in a future that is more or less new and would not be interesting in a novel.

I think one has to know where the borders are, no? The frontiers between one form of language and another.

GO: Is it difficult to change between language and mentality in terms of form?

LP: Sometimes it is difficult, and at other times one does not achieve it. Sometimes one passes from one terrain to the other, but in the case of the novel I work a great deal on the text, trying to clean it, and, in the case of journalism, I use many literary resources. I like my journalistic writing to be contaminated with literature, personalities, forms of language, culture, that are not always common in journalism.

GO: Obviously you are in a privileged position to observe Cuban journalism. Journalism elsewhere has problems, often because of market pressures. But what condition is Cuban journalism in? Is it healthy in terms of freedom of expression, or do you see pressures to restrict what people are writing?

“New Internet technologies have created a problem for the Cuban propaganda system, because for forty years there has only been one type of journalism in Cuba”

LP: New Internet technologies have created a problem for the Cuban propaganda system, because for forty years there has only been one type of journalism in Cuba. In Cuba, the newspapers, the magazines, radio stations, television, all belong to the state. And in Cuba the state, government, and party are the same. And the government, the party, and the state think like Fidel Castro. As such, there is only one type of thought, and more than media of communication and information they have been converted into media of propaganda.

The Internet has broken this down, and there have appeared alternative routes, at times very narrow, at times very complicated, because having access to the Internet in Cuba is not easy. Not everyone has it, but these routes exist.

I think that for many years one of the great problems of the Cuban intellectual world is that there has not existed a much more open form of journalism, more critical, more complex in terms of its perspectives on reality. We are also talking here about a journalism that would be contrary to the government — one might say a journalism that, while in favour of the government, has a critical perspective on real things. Every now and again there is a congress, a meeting, a speech in which journalists are asked to be more critical, more participative. But something immediately happens, and the “shell” shuts again. It closes down again and we’re back to this dull journalism, so non-analytical when it comes to reality.

I would say that within fifty years, someone reading a Cuban newspaper and reading one of my novels would, well, say that here are two different countries. Because in this book are situations from Cuban life that never appear in this newspaper. And it is not because the newspaper should be written like a novel, or the novel should be written like a newspaper, but that what is needed is a journalism much more reflective of reality — and that does not exist in Cuba.

GO: Are things changing?

LP: There have been small changes since Fidel’s illness. I have just read on the Internet recently in the Spanish newspaper El País that at the Havana Book Fair an alternative book was released whose author was warned not to launch this book. He did so anyway, and nothing happened. In another era, this would not have happened.

That is, many perspectives have been changing — in the cultural world above all — beginning in the 1990s, and what Cubans most expect now are changes in the economy, in the Cuban economic system. People are not proposing many political changes, but economic changes, because the main problem in Cuba is how to sort out the daily economic hardships of people. Raúl Castro himself has admitted that, in Cuba, wages are insufficient to live on. So if in a country where there is one fundamental employer — because only four or five per cent of Cubans are independent workers and the rest work for the state — the state itself admits that the salary it pays people is not sufficient, then there is clearly an economic problem, a relationship that has been broken.

The people need — I think — to earn four or five salaries in order to be able to live more or less normally, and it is from that which derive all the survival alternatives that people employ. Someone who has family in Miami who sends them money, someone doing a second job, another who makes a small business of whatever he can, and one way or another they sort themselves out. No matter what, there is an important tier of the population (I am not sure how large) that lives in conditions of poverty — because in Cuba there is no misery, in Cuba everyone eats, everyone goes to school, to the doctor, and there is not this indigence that exists in other Latin American countries. But these people do live in a certain degree of poverty.

GO: In this fiftieth year of the Cuban Revolution, would you say that Cuba is the closest we have come to any utopia, or that the effort to create utopia in Cuba was mistaken?

LP: I don’t know if we are more or less close than others. I don’t know if it was all a mistake or not. What I do believe is that Cuba made a revolution that helped many people to improve themselves, many people to have a better life, but that at a given point in this process the same revolution became incapable of providing these people with new choices — because if I teach you how to use a computer and I tell you that the Internet is a powerful tool of knowledge, but later I do not give you access to an Internet account, I am blocking this modern development, no? So the relationship that exists in Cuba between the things that have been positive and those that have not been, or have been definitively negative, is very contradictory.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009

Gavin O’Toole is the editor of The Latin American Review of Books.