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!

Advertisements

Extensive re-run of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ crime fiction series on now!

Thanks to Andy Lawrence for spotting that BBC Radio 4 is re-running episodes from Mark Lawson’s excellent ‘Foreign Bodies’ crime fiction series on BBC Radio Four extra and BBC iPlayer Radio. Most episodes will be available online for a month following broadcast, and offer 15-minute opportunities to delve into the work of key crime writers and traditions from around the world.

foreign-bodies

The ‘Foreign Bodies’ series are close to my heart for their celebration of international crime fiction, their focus on some of our most interesting detective figures, and their analysis of how crime fiction is used to explore important political and social issues. I was also lucky enough to contribute to two episodes in Series 1 – on the works of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Jakob Arjouni respectively.

Here’s a list of the ‘Foreign Bodies’ programmes you can listen to via BBC Radio iPlayer, either now or in the coming days. If you’re looking for some gems to add to your reading list, then these programmes are definitely for you.

Series 1, Episode 1  Belgium: Hercule Poirot and Jules Maigret (Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon)

Series 1, Episode 2  Switzerland/Germany: Inspector Bärlach (Friedrich Dürrenmatt… with a contribution from Mrs Peabody)

foreign-bodies-barlach

Series 1, Episode 3  Czechoslovakia: Lieutenant Boruvka (Josef Skvorecky)

Series 1, Episode 4  The Netherlands: Commissaris Van Der Valk (Nicolas Freeling)

Series 1, Episode 5  Sweden: Inspector Martin Beck (Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö)

Series 1, Episode 6  UK: Commander Dalgliesh/Chief Inspector Wexford (P.D. James and Ruth Rendell)

Series 1, Episode 7  Sicily: Inspector Rogas (Leonardo Sciascia)

Series 1, Episode 8  Spain: PI Pepe Carvalho (Manuel Vázquez Montalbán)

Series 1, Episode 9  UK: DCI Jane Tennison (Linda La Plante)

Episodes 10 to 15 are not yet listed as available, but they may well be soon – I’ll update if so (these include Montalbano/Italy, Kayankaya/Germany, Rebus/Scotland, Wallander and Salander/Sweden, Harry Hole/Norway and Fandorin/Russia).

foreign-bodies-spain

Series 3, Episode 1  Cuba: an exploration of fictional investigations of Cuba after the Castro revolution with Leonardo Padura, author of The Havana Quartet, and Caroline Garcia-Aquilera, a Cuban-American writing from exile in Miami.

Series 3, Episode 2  USA: Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley, the creators of private eyes Tess Monaghan and Easy Rawlins, discuss how they introduced the experience of women and black Americans into crime fiction dominated by men and a McCarthyite fear of outsiders.

Series 3, Episode 3  Poland: Zygmunt Miloszewski and Joanna Jodelka reflect on how Polish crime fiction depicts the country’s occupation by Nazis and Communists, the transition to democracy through the Solidarity movement and lingering accusations of racism and anti-Semitism.

Series 3 Episode 4  Australia: Australia’s leading crime novelist, South African-born Peter Temple, discusses depicting a society shaped by both British colonialism and American power, and why Australian crime fiction should contain as few words as possible.

Series 3 Episode 5  Nigeria: Writers Helon Habila and C.M. Okonkwo discuss how a flourishing new tradition of Nigerian crime fiction explores British legacy, tribal tradition and the new “corporate colonialism” as global companies exploit the country’s mineral reserves.

******

Mark Lawson’s article on the first ‘Foreign Bodies’ series is also available via The Guardian: ‘Crime’s Grand Tour: European Detective Fiction’.

Globetrotting crime: Auckland, Bangalore, Barcelona, Havana

Family Peabody is off on holiday in a cunning attempt to extend summer a little longer. As ever, my first priority has been choosing which books to take along. And by books, I mean actual books to read while lying by the pool/sipping a drink on the balcony/ enjoying a coffee in a cafe. Time to savour a break from the electronic world and wind down in seventies style.

reading

Here are four novels that have made the cut. All happen to be published by Bitter Lemon Press, which champions top quality crime fiction from all over the world. I made my choices on the basis of the cover blurb (see below), the setting, and that tingly feeling that makes you think you’ll enjoy a book. As a result, some are from the middle or even the end of a series, but that’s fine…

AUCKLAND/NEW ZEALAND: Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press 2013 [2012])

Death on demand

Maori cop Tito Ihaka – ‘unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane’ – is a cop unable to play the police politics necessary for promotion, but a man who has a way with women, and he’s a stubborn investigator with an uncanny instinct for the truth. Ihaka is in the wilderness, having fallen foul of the new regime at Auckland Central. Called back to follow up a strange twist in the unsolved case that got him into trouble in the first place, Ihaka finds himself hunting a shadowy hitman who could have several notches on his belt. His enemies want him off the case, but the bodies are piling up. Ihaka embarks on a quest to establish whether police corruption was behind the shooting of an undercover cop and – to complicate matters – he becomes involved with an enigmatic female suspect who could hold the key to everything.

An extract from Death on Demand is available on the Bitter Lemon website.

BANGALORE/INDIA: A Cut-like Wound by Anita Nair (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014 [2012]

cut

It’s the first day of Ramadan in heat-soaked Bangalore. A young man begins to dress: makeup, a sari and expensive pearl earrings. Before the mirror he is transformed into Bhuvana. She is a hijra, a transgender seeking love in the bazaars of the city. What Bhuvana wants, she nearly gets: a passing man is attracted to this elusive young woman. But someone points out that Bhuvana is no woman. For that, the interloper’s throat is cut. A case for Inspector Borei Gowda, going to seed and at odds with those around him including his wife, his colleagues, even the informers he must deal with. More corpses and Urmila, Gowda’s ex-flame, are added to this spicy concoction of a mystery novel.

Read an extract from A Cut-like Wound here.

BARCELONA/SPAIN: A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2011 [2007)

a-shortcut-to-paradise_1024x1024 (1)

The shady, accident-prone private detective twins Eduard Martinez and Borja ‘Pep’ Masdeu are back. Another murder beckons, and this time the victim is one of Barcelona’s literary glitterati.

Marina Dolç, media figure and writer of best-sellers, is murdered in the Ritz Hotel in Barcelona on the night she wins an important literary prize. The killer has battered her to death with the trophy she has just won, an end identical to that of the heroine in her prize-winning novel. The same night the Catalan police arrest their chief suspect, Amadeu Cabestany, runner-up for the prize. Borja and Eduard are hired to prove his innocence. The unlikely duo is plunged into the murky waters of the Barcelona publishing scene and need all their wit and skills of improvisation to solve this case of truncated literary lives.

Read an extract from A Shortcut to Paradise here.

HAVANA/CUBA: Leonardo Padura, Havana Fever (translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2009 [2005]

havana

Havana, 2003, fourteen years since Mario Conde retired from the police force and much has changed in Cuba. He now makes a living trading in antique books bought from families selling off their libraries in order to survive. In the house of Alcides de Montes de Oca, a rich Cuban who fled after the fall of Batista, Conde discovers an extraordinary book collection and, buried therein, a newspaper article about Violeta del Rio, a beautiful bolero singer of the 1950s, who disappeared mysteriously. Conde’s intuition sets him off on an investigation that leads him into a darker Cuba, now flooded with dollars, populated by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and other hunters of the night. But this novel also allows Padura to evoke the Havana of Batista, the city of a hundred night clubs where Marlon Brando and Josephine Baker listened to boleros, mambos and jazz. Probably Padura’s best book, Havana Fever is many things: a suspenseful crime novel, a cruel family saga and an ode to literature and his beloved, ravaged island.

An extract from Havana Fever is available here.

Happy reading! Mrs. Peabody will be back in a couple of weeks.