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Written by Dr Stephen Wilkinson   
Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Padura’s detective quartet:

Morality tales for the post-Soviet age

 

Until Leonardo Padura began writing detective novels in the early 1990s, the genre in Cuba was a medium through which an attempt had been made at inculcating the masses in the correct modes of behaviour in a socialist society. Understandably, as writers struggled to marry the exigencies of this didactic task with the need to tell a thrilling tale, the quality of the massive output in novels, short stories, radio plays and TV serials was varied to say the least.

 

Borrowing heavily from similar formulas adopted in the former socialist bloc of Eastern Europe, the Cuban genre had some successes but these were outstanding in the main because they shone against a mass of mediocrity. All too often anodyne policemen chased 'evil' CIA infiltrators and sympathisers in hackneyed plots that held little suspense.

 
Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the real world that sustained this fictional counterpart disappeared, and the way was clear for a revitalisation of the genre. In stepped Padura with his four novels Las cuatro estaciones (The Four Seasons) all set in 1989, the cataclysmic year in which the Berlin Wall came down. These have all now been masterfully translated into English by Peter Bush and published by 
Bitter Lemon Press in London.

 
Just as in the US during the 1930s, Dashiell Hammett transformed the detective story from the genteel drawing room mysteries that had been popular in the prosperous twenties into the hard-boiled thrillers more befitting the gangster age; Padura effected a similar genre shift in Cuba.

Instead of being a family man with an impeccable socialist cv, Padura's Lieutenant Conde is a divorcee and a drinker with a heavy sense of irony who, instead of chasing CIA men, tracks down corrupt officials and home grown crooks in a Havana that is familiar - crumbling buildings, street girls and shortages.

 Padura is a conscious author who was literary critic before he took up writing fiction. His novels therefore display intertextuality, and like the work of Manuel Vazquez Montalban and Umberto Eco, two of his many influences, they have an allegorical quality often dealing with current preoccupations within Cuban society.

 
For example Havana Red, or Mascaras (Masks), as it was originally called in Spanish, the third in the series is typically pertinent. This deceptively complex novel, on one level is a well-executed whodunnit about the murder of a transvestite in a Havana Park and reads as well as any Ruth Rendell mystery. But on another level it is an examination of Cuban attitudes towards homosexuality and a revisiting of themes first aired publicly by the 1993 Oscar-nominated film Strawberry and Chocolate - namely the persecution of Cuban artists and writers in the early years of the revolution because they were homosexuals.

 In addition, as the title 'Masks' implies, there is a recurrent theme in the novel that deals with hypocrisy, both of officialdom as well as in daily life in Cuba. It is a theme that recurs throughout the whole Mario Conde series and familiar to those who follow Cuban culture closely, but may come as a surprise to those who have a stereotypical view of the island.

 For those who tend to support the Cuban revolution blindly and those who tend to attack it from a position of ideological ignorance, Padura’s work is particularly challenging. For it is clear that Padura is a critical voice from within. At times the sarcasm and behaviour of his policeman indicates an almost heretical attitude. Yet Padura remains in Cuba and is celebrated, certainly by the artistic community and the general population, as one of the nation's greatest authors.

Padura's presence in the island and his novels are a great achievement because they illustrate that Cuban socialism is not as repressive as its enemies claim it to be, while at the same time showing that Cuba is perhaps not as perfect as some of its friends might want us to believe.

 Padura's Havana is a heterogeneous place, where the macro politics of the Cold War, the blockade and the confrontation with the United States is not mentioned but broods ominously behind a textual imagery in which the characteristic scarcities and contradictions of the 1990s are ever present. In this way Padura's reality is carefully nuanced and not easily bracketed into any ideological point of view.

 In a sense therefore, Padura exemplifies the maturity of Cuban socialism in that it has been able to produce an author of such ability and education (his influences are extremely wide-ranging - from Shakespeare to Salinger, Cervantes to Montalban, Mozart to Lennon) who is able to create a credible fictional Cuban world that is recognisable to visitors and Cubans alike and which is relevant to the times we are living through.

 Some Cuban politicians might feel uncomfortable reading these stories, but then that is precisely the kind of popular literature that Gramsci called for. True art, said Gramsci, is about depicting life as it is now - whereas politics is always about some great future that is going to be. For that reason, he explained, the politician would always be at loggerheads with the artist. Padura is such an artist. He makes the reader sit up and think, using the medium of the detective story not to propagandise but to philosophise. Indeed, his novels might be described as morality tales for the post-Soviet/post-modern era.

Dr Stephen Wilkinson,

International Institute for the Study of Cuba

 is the author of Detective Fiction in Cuban Society and Culture Published by Peter Lang (2006)

Last Updated ( Sunday, 15 June 2008 )
 
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