Cuban crime fiction was very much on my mind when I posted READING ’ROUND THE WORLD – Cuba on July 18, 2014.
I was totally immersed in Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet, and aware of an expanding enthusiasm for Havana Police Lieutenant Mario Conde.
As I said at the time, I was enjoying Conde, but hadn’t quite made up my mind about him… To be truthful, I was somewhat hesitant about adding him to my moody sleuth list, mainly because the ‘louche’ yet oh-so appealing ‘Count’ exhibits a few traits that gave me pause… first among them his flagrant, but utterly honest, ‘politically in-correctness’.
I thought to include a raunchy quote or two as evidence, but decided I’d let you discover the Count’s ‘lascivious proclivities’ all on your own.
After scarfing down the entire Quartet, I could only be restrained from tracking down the next in the Cuban crime writer’s popular series by wrenching myself back to the reality that I had several more continents worth of reading to do for the 2014 Global Reading Challenge, before my conscience would allow for lengthy diversion in any one country.
Now that the 2014 Challenge is over, I’ve promised myself I will pursue Mario Conde… as soon as I’ve given you a few good reasons to take a look at this series.
A reader could begin with any of the books in the popular Cuban crime writer’s Havana Quartet, but for me, getting to know Mario Conde began at the beginning, with Havana Blue.
As has become customary, I’ll give you a good concise intro. This one’s from Kirkus reviews:
Havana Police Lt. Mario Conde awakes on January 1, 1989, with a pounding New Year’s Eve hangover and an uncomfortable assignment: the reported disappearance of Rafael Morin Rodríguez, a charismatic and influential politico in Cuba’s ruling Nomenklatura. Rafael was last seen dancing with his trophy wife Tamara at a festive party. Conde’s discomfort stems from the fact that Tamara was the girl of his dreams, in fact, he’s never really gotten over her. Every stage of the probe is punctuated by nostalgic flashbacks –
It is these ‘nostalgic flashbacks’ in Havana Blue (and in the rest of the Quartet) that I want to talk about… primarily because they’re part and parcel of what sets Mario Conde apart from all the other ‘moody sleuths’ on my list.
Secondly, due to my interest in Leonardo Padura’s motivation, I want to look at how those ‘nostalgic flashbacks’ and Conde’s role as ‘the bloody rememberer’ serve the writer’s intentions.
The first flashback in Havana Blue comes within pages of the beginning as Mario Conde tries to shake off his New Year’s hangover on his way to the Havana police station in response to his boss’ call regarding Morin’s disappearance.
As Conde runs to catch a bus, the point of view switches abruptly to first person and we’re into his first memory of Morin:
It was twenty past one but everybody was there… the bell rang, and on 1 September 1972 the high school gates opened in La Víbora…[.]…ah the first day at school …[.]…the sun, which was fucking burning down… we sang the national anthem, and the headmaster climbed on the platform that was beneath the arch in the shade and began to speak into the microphone. First he threatened us: females, skirts below the knee … ; males, hair cut above the ears, no sideburns or moustaches; … females, stockings pulled up, not rolled down round the ankles – although that really suited them, even the skinny ones … and the sun started to roast me alive. He went on talking in the shade, and the second thing he did was to introduce the president of the SF.
He climbed on the platform and displayed a dazzling smile. Colgate, Skinny must have thought, but I didn’t yet know the skinny lad behind me in the line… He was tall, almost fair-haired, with very light-coloured eyes – a faded ingenuous blue – and seemed freshly washed, combed, shaved, perfumed and out of bed and, despite his distance from us and the heat, he oozed self-confidence, when, by way of starting his speech, he introduced himself as Rafael Morín Rodríguez, president of the Student Federation of the René O. Reiné High School and a member of the Municipal Youth Committee. I remember him, the sun that gave me such a bad head and the rest, and thinking that that guy was a born leader: he talked and talked.
Just as abruptly, the p.o.v. returns to third person and we’re back in the narrative’s present day, January 1, 1989, as Conde enters the Havana police station:
The lift doors opened slowly like the curtain in a fleapit, and only then did Lieutenant Mario Conde realize he wasn’t viewing that scene through dark glasses. His headache had almost gone, but the familiar image of Rafael Morín stirred recollections he’d thought lost in the dankest corners of his memory. The Count liked remembering, he had a shit-hot memory, Skinny used to say, but he’d have preferred another reason to remember.
Again, Mario is in his office after questioning several people about the missing Raphael Morin, including his wife Tamara. Gazing out the window of his office cubicle at the street lined by ancient laurel trees, Mario drifts away from pondering the case at hand, and thinks about “the long chain of errors and coincidences that had shaped his existence”…
He rested his fingertips on the icy windowpane and wondered what he’d made of his life: whenever he revisited his past he felt he was nobody and had nothing, only his thirty-four years and two abandoned marriages… [. ]…His voice grew hoarser by the day because of the two packets of cigarettes he smoked daily, and he knew that apart from going bald, he’d end up with a hole in his throat … talking via an apparatus that would make him sound like a stainless steel robot. He hardly read nowadays and had even forgotten the day when he’d pledged before a photo of Hemingway, the idol he most worshipped, that he’d be a writer and nothing else and that any other adventures would be valid as life experience. Life experience. Dead bodies, suicides, murderers… Ten years wallowing in the sewers of society…
What have you made of your life, Mario Conde? he asked himself daily as he attempted to reverse the time machine and one by one right his own wrongs, disappointments and excesses, anger and hatred, cast off his errant ways and find the exact point at which to begin afresh.
By this time, there’s no doubt Conde is deeply nostalgic, both blessed and cursed by memory. And as the story progresses, his ‘nostalgic flashbacks’ tend more toward the cursed than the blessed. Conde is, as his best friend ‘Skinny’ Carlos refers to him, the ‘bloody rememberer’.
Conde’s obsessive ‘picking at old wounds’ is highlighted in this particularly apt snippet from the Spring 2011 issue of Opticon1826, UCL’s academic review, in a paper by Professor Alejandro Zamora and Mélissa Gélinas:
Incorrigibly self-reflective and an ‘egocentric suffer’, Mario Conde cannot help but constantly dwell upon his ‘existencia equivocada’ (mistaken existence)
I’ve probably overstated my case for adding Mario Conde to my ‘moody sleuth’ list, but I also read a few interviews to see what Padura had to say about his creation, and this bit from BOMB — Artists in Conversation by Oscar Hijuelos sums up Conde’s moodiness… plus it gives me a convenient segue into exploring Padura’s motives.
….I have always found [Conde’s] personality, with its mixture of sensual abandon and melancholia, fundamentally Cuban. Am I mistaken?
Mario Conde is Cuban to the core. He speaks in Cuban, lives in Cuban, thinks and suffers in Cuban, but he isn’t a typical Cuban. He might be too cerebral, nostalgic, disenchanted, melancholic. Although he expresses all of these qualities from the perspective of his Cubanness, in Cuba levity is more common, being carefree, living from day to day without fretting over things, or as we say in Cuba, “sin coger lucha.” Not Conde. He suffers like a stray dog – from longing for a better future that never arrives, from corruption and social climbing, from the fates of failing or exiled friends.
“He suffers like a stray dog.” How can we resist caring?
Padura continues: (and here we get to motives)
All of this happens to him because, deep down, Conde has always been, above all, a writer who never wrote. He has too much of a social conscience, too much of an awareness of time, history, destiny. And thanks to this, I was able to use him… As a means through which to see a Cuban reality that neither I, nor he, are satisfied with, for many reasons. In order to achieve something like this I had to have an intelligent, sensitive character, more of a frustrated writer than a true policeman.
Writer Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker online, comments on Padura’s desire to use crime fiction “to engage the biggest problems of society: corruption, repression, hypocrisy, ideological erosion, opportunism, poverty… as a way to enter and touch the dark side.”
Anderson also points out that in Conde, Padura created “a despondent idealist, given to contemplating life’s insoluble questions – all of which makes him as identifiable for Cubans as Rabbit Angstrom was for suburban Americans.”
A brief aside: In case this reference to John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom doesn’t elicit a nod, here’s a comment from Julian Barnes, who describes the Rabbit series as ‘the greatest postwar American fiction’:
Any future historian wanting to understand the texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white-collar life in ordinary America between the 1950s and the 1990s will need little more than the Rabbit quartet.
In fact, Padura credits John Updike with inspiring his creation of Mario Conde; his intention being to use his Havana police Lieutenant to do in Cuba what Rabbit Angstrom had done for American society.
In referring to his Quartet, Padura explains: “these novels express disenchantment with a social project – the Revolution – which, although it can be something beautiful, has been something … arduous.” (Anderson’s emphasis)
My motivation behind this novel and the Conde series was the desire to write detective novels which would be, above all, of a social character. Something I felt I had to do was to leave behind a mark of an historical moment that we live through in Cuba and, more specifically, the feeling of disillusionment when the ideal world which they spoke of began to disappear…
– from Our Man in Havana
I understand Padura’s ‘historical moment’ to be around the beginning of Cuba’s “Special Period” which began after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989, as the Soviet bloc began to dissolve, severing its once generous economic lifeline, and the U.S. chose to intensify its already harsh embargoes – but I’m not going to delve into ‘all that’ as I can see your eyes glazing over.
I’ve expressed this a few times over the past two years – I’m no history buff, but I do like to learn something from my reading, particularly in regards to social and political history. I’m looking for that ‘texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white-collar life’ in Cuba between the 1970s and the 1990s
But it can’t get in the way of the story. Let’s be adamant about that!
Please let me assure you that despite all my blathering on about ‘nostalgic flashbacks’, writers’ motives, and ‘historical moments’, I’ve so enjoyed reading every book in the series that I can’t wait to get hold of the next.
Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde series is the most popular detective series in Cuba, has been translated into half a dozen languages (at least), plus some titles have been adapted to film.
Also, I have it on authority that Padura isn’t about to abandon this character, so we can keep our fingers crossed that they’ll have a translator at-the-ready for the next in the series.
In the mean time, having read the Havana Quartet twice over, next on my list is Adios Hemingway… and I see that Amazon.com has Havana Fever in eBook form.
Publisher Bitter Lemon Press’ site is a little finicky (I couldn’t get the search facility to work for me), but if you follow this link to their Leonardo Padura page, there are links to all four books in the Quartet, and each of these has links to a decent-sized extract from the book, plus links to a variety of reviews.