Leonardo Padura: Cuba’s Leading Man of Literature

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 7.45.39 PMBy Carole Reedy

More than fifty years ago a rag-tag band of insurgents, led by Fidel Castro, surprised the world with the success of their political revolution in Cuba. Little did they (or anyone else) know their takeover of the Batista government would put Cuba in world headlines for years to come.

Cuba has always been something of a mystery, from a playground for the masafios and the revolution to the current-day changes since the death of El Comandante. The small island of 11,000 inhabitants has gifted the world with numerous artists despite periods of economic depression. Many came from sport and music cultures. Dancers throughout the world have been influenced by the innovative ballet of Carlos Acosta (I highly recommend his rags-to-riches personal story, No Way Home, published in 2007). Musicians Desi Arnez and Xavier Cugat, as well as baseball players Jose Canseco, Tony Perez, and El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) have given the world many hours of enjoyment.

And while Cuba garners much attention, few readers are likely aware of the novels and essays of the island’s 62-year-old Leonardo Padura. Several factors have sparked well-deserved interest in his works over the past two years. A recent Netflix screen offering of Padura’s quartet of novels–Four Seasons in Havana–has garnered him significant attention.

The four popular novels, Havana Blue (Pasado perfecto), Havana Gold (Vientos de cuaresma), Havana Red (Mascaras), and Havana Black (Paisaje de otoño) and their protagonist, the wannabe writer-cum-detective Inspector Mario Conde, have won the hearts of lovers of the genre the world over.

Even more significant, however, is that Padura has taken the detective/crime story genre and created serious literary novels from it while giving the reader a glimpse of the Cuban society he knows so well.

The book that brought real international acclaim to Padura is The Man Who Loved Dogs. The talk of the town in the Spanish-language community in 2009, it was translated and published in English in 2014. In it, Padura weaves the lives of Leon Trotsky, his assassin Ramon Mercader, and the obsessive dictator Stalin into a novel that takes us across the globe, from Russia and Spain to France, Mexico, and Cuba during and after the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War.

The geographical, political, and philosophical range of this 700-page novel is breathtaking, and the structure provides a fast-paced framework for its story.

In 2012, Padura won Cuba’s National Prize for Literature; then in 2015, he was awarded the Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras, Iberoamerica’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Padura’s English-speaking fans are eager to read his newly translated novel, Heretics. Once again, Padura takes us on a time and place journey–from 17th-century Amsterdam to present-day Cuba and London—as his well-loved detective Mario Conde (from the quartet series) assists in the mystery surrounding a Rembrandt masterpiece.

Padura’s strength as a writer lies in his characterizations. In The Man Who Loved Dogs he even manages to evoke sympathy for a villain, and his Cuban characters shed light on life in Cuba today.

Padura was born in Havana in 1955 and has seen many changes. He suffered real economic hardship in the ’90s but continues to live in the barrio in which he was born. He does not write directly about Cuban politics, though Spanish and Russian politics certainly play a part of The Man Who Loved Dogs.

In an interview with Mario Vizcaíno Serrat for Mexico City’s newspaper La Razon, Padura states, “I am not interested in turning literature into a platform for political denunciation. Literature has to take advantage of other possibilities. If you are a writer you have to control the politics so that it is not an element that vitiates the literary work.” In the same interview, Padura explains the reason he didn’t leave Cuba, even in the most difficult times during the ’90s. Of that time he says, “such an adverse situation could be beneficial to my work. What I did was write like crazy to not go crazy. And between 1990 and 1995 I wrote three novels and an essay about Carpentier.”

To know more about Padura in his role as a Cuban writer, his thoughts about the island and the world, as well as a bit about Hemingway, you will want to read his selected essays that appear in Yo Quisiera ser Paul Auster. Although I don’t believe it’s been translated into English, it’s written in highly readable Spanish for those for whom it is a second language. The final essay bears the name of the book’s title, and it’s not surprising that many admirers of Padura are also lovers of Paul Auster’s gifts of genius to the literary community.

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