When a Cuban mystery writer is published in the US, it’s a surprise and, in the case of Leonardo Padura, a major event. Padura is a native Cuban living in Havana who writes dark detective fiction in a style some reviewers liken to Chandler. His moody, atmospheric novels are set in the shadows of Havana where wealthy bureaucrats and criminals search for mutual interests. This is where the art and historical objects of Cuban colonial past and the riches of pre-revolution excesses change hands for cash and sometimes murders are arranged.
The first of Padura’s mysteries translated into English appeared as Havana Red in 2005; it was originally published in Spanish in 1997 as Mascaras (Masks), and is the third novel of a quartet of novels titled The Four Seasons. The novel introduced American readers to Lieutenant Mario Conde and his assistant Sergeant Manolo Palacios. For many readers it was also an introduction to the dark side of modern Cuban fiction. Selecting the third volume to be the first translated into English is unfortunate, in that the reader does not get the moving back-story of Inspector Conde who was a scholarship student from the slums of Havana.
Conde’s back-story was presented to Cuban readers in Pasado Perfecto (The Perfect Past). Fortunately, Pasado Perfecto has now been translated. Americans can read it as Havana Blue. Where, in the opening scene, a terribly hung-over inspector Conde is awakened by an insistent phone call from his boss who is canceling Conde’s well-earned New Years leave because a top bureaucrat in the Cuban export/import ministry has gone missing. A missing bureaucrat is an extremely unusual and very disturbing event in Cuba and this bureaucrat had access to Cuban reserves of scarce US dollars. The boss is in a turmoil and has selected Conde to solve the mystery because he is the best detective in the Havana police department; he gives Conde no choice in the matter.
The missing person was Rafael Morin. His beautiful wife Tamara filled the missing person report with the police—she says that Rafael got up from bed, left their house and vanished in the early hours of New Years day. Inspector Conde knows Rafael and Tamara from his prep school days, when he had troubles with Rafael that left him with bitter memories that still festered 15 years latter. He discovers that other important people who knew Marin have left the country, but the case becomes further complicated when Tamara’s story doesn’t check out. Conde was once in love with Tamara and his bitter memories begin to affect his work. The reader is left wondering whether Conde will unravel before the crime is solved.
This is a great novel about modern Cuba with a focus on the hardships faced by the working class due to scarcity of goods and poor economic conditions. It is a police procedural novel with interesting characters that caught and held my attention. I recently scanned the first first few pages to refresh my memory, but soon I found myself reading and I ended up re-reading the entire novel. Great.
The front material quotes poems by Ray Bradbury and the Cuban poet Eliseo Diego:
no poseyendo más
entre cielo y tierra que
mi memoria, que este tiempo;
…Eliseo Diego, Testamento
not owning more
between heaven and earth
than my own memory, and time;
Looking up a translation of the Eliseo Diego poem on the Internet I find that the poem concludes:
This is my testament.
I leave to you
my time, the whole of time.
As I reflect on the novel, this poem seems apt—time and memories play a big role in the story.
Day 19: Pasado Perfecto (Past Perfect) (Leonardo Perdura) (Translated to English as Havana Blue, 2005).