Heretics: Exclusive interview with top Cuban crime writer Leonardo Padura

Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba’s foremost authors, was in London last week for the launch of his new novel, Heretics, with Bitter Lemon Press at Daunt Books. And while he was here, he kindly gave ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ an exclusive interview.

If you haven’t heard of Padura or read any of his crime novels, now is the time… Padura is a master of the genre, “whose prize-winning series of novels about Cuban detective Inspector Mario Conde has changed the face of Latin American crime writing, taking a conventional formula into the category of dark and serious literary fiction” (Jane Jakeman, The Independent).

The first four Mario Conde novels, known as The Havana Quartet, were published in Cuba in the 1990s, and a few years later in the UK by Bitter Lemon Press, which has consistently championed Padura’s work. The quartet comprises Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Red and Havana Black all translated by Peter Bush – and track four of Conde’s investigations in winter, spring, summer and autumn.

Padura has recently been involved in the quartet’s TV adaptation for American Netflix – entitled Four Seasons in Havana – which I very much hope we will see in the UK soon. Here’s the trailer, which gives a really good flavour of the crime novels and the starring role Havana plays in them (some explicit content):

The highly acclaimed fifth novel, Havana Fever (trans. Peter Bush), rejoins Conde in 2003. Now working as an antiquarian bookseller, he is pulled into investigating the disappearance of 1950s bolero singer Violeta del Rio.

And so we come to Heretics, the latest Conde novel, translated by Anna Kushner. It has to be regarded as something of a departure for Padura, as it’s nearly twice as long as any other novel in the series and moves far beyond the author’s usual Havana setting. I’ve read about a quarter of it so far, and am dazzled by its ambition and heart. In my view, it could be read either as a new instalment in the series or as a standalone in its own right.

Here’s the book jacket description –

“In 1939, the Saint Louis sails from Hamburg into Havana’s port with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. From the docks, nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watches as the passengers, including his parents, become embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. But the Kaminskys have a treasure they hope will save them: a Rembrandt portrait of Christ. Yet six days later the vessel is forced to leave the harbour with the family, bound for the horrors of Europe. The Kaminskys, along with their priceless heirloom, disappear.

Nearly seven decades later, the Rembrandt reappears in an auction house in London, prompting Daniel’s son to travel to Cuba to track down the story of the lost masterpiece. He hires Mario Conde, and together they navigate a web of deception and violence in the morally complex city of Havana.

In Heretics, Leonardo Padura takes us from the tenements and beaches of Cuba to Rembrandt’s gloomy studio in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, telling the story of people forced to choose between the tenets of their faith and the realities of the world, between their personal desires and the demands of their times.

A grand detective story and a moving historical drama, Padura’s novel is as compelling, mysterious, and enduring as the painting at its centre.”

The original cover of the novel, showing the painting at the heart of the narrative.

Now it’s time for that interview!

Leonardo gave his interview answers in Spanish, and I’m very grateful to Peter Bush for providing us with this excellent translation.

Mrs. Peabody: Leonardo, a very warm welcome to the blog. Heretics, your latest Mario Conde novel, is over 500 pages long and thus significantly longer than the others in the series. Can you tell us why the story Heretics tells needed more space than those featured in the other novels?

Leonardo Padura: Novels are realms of freedom, and what that allows is the potential to exceed yourself as much as you need, to say whatever you need, always with one aim in mind: to communicate whatever you need. Moreover, this isn’t simply another novel in the Mario Conde series, but an experiment in the fusing of the historical novel and police procedural, in having more than one hero and more than one story, in mixing everything up and breaking all limits…even the number of pages.

Mrs PeabodyHeretics has incredible historical breadth. Portions of the novel are set in Poland in the 1600s, Havana and Europe in the 1930s, Havana in the 1950s, America in the 1980s, as well as more modern-day Havana. How did you go about researching the historical events you portray? And was it difficult to integrate so much history into one literary narrative? Was there a danger that the history would overwhelm the novel?

Leonardo PaduraThe research behind this novel was complex because, as you say, it involves different eras and locations. I had to study in depth Jewish culture and religion, the art of Rembrandt, Cuba in the 1940s and 50s… in order to focus on the issue of our right as individuals to exercise our freedom. I wanted it to be a reflection that went beyond a perspective locked into a single context and became as universal as the issues of freedom, free will and heresy are… And if you are a novelist you must recognise your limits and aims and try to write a novel rather than a historical essay. There is a frontier between history and fiction and you must never let it out of your sight.

Map of Cuba

Mrs PeabodyWas there a particular historical incident that inspired the novel, such as the shameful story of the Saint Louis in 1939?

Leonardo PaduraThe story of the Saint Louis is the origin of everything, but that’s all: I used it as a highly dramatic and horrific historical pretext to go in search of other stories relating to individuals who suffer the weight of history, who are condemned though they have never committed a crime, who only suffer because they are what they are or want to be. That’s why the novel is what it is.

Mrs PeabodyWhat is the significance of the novel’s title, Heretics?

Leonardo PaduraThere are various heretics in my novel, in different historical periods and places. They are individuals who decide to exercise their free will and then pay the price. Society doesn’t ordinarily accept people who refuse to toe the line, non-conformists, rebels, people who are different, and generally considered to be “heretics”… However, the world would never have progressed or changed without “heretics”. In a way, even if they don’t take up arms, they are the revolutionaries…

Mrs PeabodyHow would you categorise Heretics – as a crime novel, historical crime novel or historical epic?

Leonardo PaduraI don’t know. It is a “heretical” novel in the sense that it can be read as combining all those perspectives, and even a philosophical one. And that was what I intended. A novel that was simultaneously many different novels, in its plot, possible interpretations and structure and language.

Leonardo Padura

Mrs PeabodyWas Heretics designed to be read as a warning from history?

Leonardo PaduraTo a degree, it was. History is something that you live and when you look back, it becomes History with a capital H. While you are living it, you are often unaware that such an act, whether individual or social, may be crucial, but History relentlessly pursues us, stays with us, influences our lives and… requires careful handling!

Mrs PeabodyYou describe your detective, Mario Conde, as a ‘paradigmatic member … of the most disappointed and f*cked up generation within the new country that was taking shape’ (Heretics, 10). Can you explain to readers unfamiliar with recent Cuban history why Mario’s generation feels this way?

Leonardo PaduraMario Conde’s, my generation, grew up with and participated in the [Cuban] Revolution, with greater or lesser faith, but nevertheless participated. And we thought we would have a future that we had earned through our own efforts as students, professionals or workers… That future had a different face, it wasn’t lavish, but it existed and… then suddenly everything fell apart, because it was a dream based on another dream that turned into a nightmare. The disappearance of the USSR and, with it, the aid that sustained Cuba economically, reduced us to a state of poverty and meant we really had to struggle to survive, now without the possibility of imagining a future. We could only struggle … in Cuba or in the diaspora. Over the last few years some things have changed in Cuba and with these changes my generation has been displaced. Too young to die, too old to recycle itself and… and many people have simply felt a huge sense of failure and loss… Beginning with the dreams we once had.

Mrs PeabodyThe city of Havana plays a major role in the Conde series. Did you always intend to use the series as a way of chronicling the changes taking place there, or did that happen naturally as the series unfolded?

Leonardo Padura: I write intending to write the best novel possible, and reflect the trials and tribulations of the human condition and, at the same time, to leave a chronicle that closely follows the nature of life in Cuba over recent decades. That’s why time and space are so important. My time, my country and, of course, my city, because I am, above all a writer who is from Havana – un habanero -, who writes in the language of Havana and sets his stories in Havana… and when I wander far off in time or history, I always return to Cuba, to Havana. A Cuba and a Havana that, for sure, sometimes seem both enigmatic and alien to a character like Mario Conde.

Mrs. Peabody: Many thanks for visiting the blog, Leonardo, and for taking the time to answer those questions. It’s much appreciated!

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7 thoughts on “Heretics: Exclusive interview with top Cuban crime writer Leonardo Padura

  1. Thank you, Mrs Peabody – This looks like a great read- Svetlana Alexeivich meets Graham Greene meets Batya Gur meets, oh dear, I’d better stop.

  2. What a great interview! It’s wonderful to get more insight into an author’s way of thinking, and what goes on behind the writing. Thank you for sharing, Mrs. P! I do like the Mario Conde novels, and Heretics sounds fascinating.

    • Thanks, Margot. It feels like an absolute honour to have him on the blog!

      The ambition and scope of Heretics is pretty breathtaking – quite a thing to pull off in authorial terms. And it’s great to be back in Conde’s company again.

  3. Great interview, thank you! I was at the Daunts evening, which was one of the most enjoyable author’s talks I’ve been to.. what a thoughtful, eloquent and fascinating man (with the coolest ringtone ever!)

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