London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2008.
Publisher Bitter Lemon Press' temperamental webpage calls its offerings, "The best crime and romans noirs from faraway places." That's no idle boast. Mexico and Cuba, while not so far away from a United States-based reader, the publisher's London headquarters introduces a distinctively alien flavour to the pages of such novels as Rolo Diez' Tequila Blue and Leonardo Padura's Havana Gold.
Havana Gold is the fourth in a series called The Havana Quartet (Havana Black, Red, Blue), all published by Bitter Lemon. Leonardo Padura published several titles, including his Adios Hemingway with Canongate of Edinburgh, first reviewed at La Bloga by Manuel Ramos.
Padura is a superb writer and story teller.
Despite the relentless Britishisms of translator Peter Bush (or John King for Adíos Hemingway), readers who enjoy good detective tales will enjoy the story, the characters, and the small insights into today's Cuba. Unlike Padura's Hemingway mystery--also featuring Conde--and other Cuba-set mysteries, there is more story and less privation. For example, Skinny's mother always has a great meal featuring meat. As a side benefit, Padura describes the recipe with sufficient detail that an adventurous cook might lift the meal off the pages and onto a dinner plate.
The grim story casts Cuba in a no punches pulled framework. A high school honors teacher is murdered. A marijuana roach provides a clue to more far-reaching crime. The young teacher, it turns out, enjoys an active sex life with her students, petty street criminals, the headmaster, and uncounted others. Corruption doesn't creep in so much as it is taken for granted; the school's only half painted owing to someone stealing half the paint for personal gain, ho hum. Color lines remain in high relief, characters identified by skin color, or weaving it within the fabric of everyday conversation. Absence of consumer goods defines shopping--the teacher exchanges sex for a new pair of sneakers. These are the type of feature that make a work distinctively Cubano.
Padura's Conde character is a gem. Straight-arrow but driven to distraction by horniness. Conde's a writer who doesn't, and feels pangs of guilt and frustration about not writing. As a literate man, he sees his world through the lens of Shakespeare and other writers. Padura takes full advantage of his character to use allusion and literature-derived metaphor to describe the world while adding to the reader's enjoyment. Here a quick allusion to Prospero's revels speech, there something from Cervantes.
Although Havana Gold is not a travelogue like Martin Cruz Smith's Havana Bay, there's a rich sense of place infusing the novel with a sentimentality echoed by Conde's own sense of loss, his failure with women, writer's block, devotion to friends, both those still in Cuba and the ones who are "off". Still, I worry that too much might have been lost in translation.
Anglophone Americans laugh with the old saying about themselves and Britons being separated by a common tongue. Havana Gold strikingly reaffirms the truth of that, in some unpleasing reminders that this is a work in translation from Spanish into British.
Most readers have no difficulty looking past -our spelling where US English calls for simple -or. But how alien indeed to hear old friends--one a cop, one a doctor, one a paralyzed war veteran--remembering back when, as boys, they played baseball: the fresh air, a prized leather glove, striding out to take their position on the pitch. No, not the fastball, the field, the pitch.
The most strident idiomatic conflict develops out of the novel's key romantic interlude, the cute meet when Conde fixes a flat tyre for a beautiful woman. He makes a pass, she takes it for a quick six. She's just playing him along but he's head-over-heels in love. When she dumps him, his bittersweet farewell loses its tender reminder of their meeting, when our separate tongues get in the way:
He held her shoulders, stroked her thick, damp hair and kissed her gently on the lips. "Tell me when you need a tyre changing. It's my speciality."
That variant spelling leads me to hear the broken-hearted Conde pronounce four syllables, "spe-shee-all-i-tea," and the charm evaporates. Sadly, this comes amidst a magical moment where Padura's writing approaches his most masterful. The author sets up a beautiful parallel of Conde and Karina with Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. Bogie/Rick laments about all the gin joints in the world she walks into his and plays that song:
"Don't think ill of me, Mario," she replied, also standing up.
"Does it matter to you what I think?"
"Yes, it does. I think you're right, we should meet up in another life."
"Pity about the mistake. But don't worry, I'm always getting it wrong," he said opening the door. The sun was disappearing behind the old Marian Brothers school in La Víbora and the Count felt like crying. Recently he'd wanted to cry a lot. He looked at Karina and wondered: why? He held her shoulders, stroked her thick, damp hair and kissed her gently on the lips. "Tell me when you need a tyre changing. It's my speciality."
And he walked down the porch towards the garden.
He was sure she'd call out, tell him to hell with everything, she'd stay with him, she adored sad policemen, she'd always play her sax for him, he only had to say "play it again", they'd be birds of the night, hungry for love and lust, he heard her run towards him, arms outstretched and sweet music in the background, but each step he took in the direction of the street stuck the knife in a little deeper, quickly bled dry his last hope. When he reached the pavement he was a man alone. What a load of shit, he thought. There wasn't even any music.
Conde's tough luck is the reader's gain. An inspired character from a masterful creator, even when read through the fog of the mother tongue. This definitely is a quartet well worth following for the full spectrum.
Internet Search News - Alltop, Chicano, La Bloga
Futurists in the 1970s predicted that (print) media would become so diverse and far flung that people would need to hire the services of media sifters who would consume voluminous amounts of information, filter it through the sieve of topicality, and pass digests along to consumers hungry for specialized knowledge. Fast forward to the 21st century and the world of RSS feeds and the Google.
La Bloga friend and compañera Sol Ruiz, alerted me to Alltop. This service is something like the filtering service those futurists were describing. Navigate to Alltop, type in a few key words, like chicano, and click: a page of chicana chicano blogs, including above-the-fold, La Bloga.
Alltop has a few kinks to work through; type "chicanas" and get no result, "mexican american" to produce "all the top Mexican news." Still, the chicana chicano page contains a wealth of fun, so happy browsing!
Hachette Give-Away for Fiestas Patrias Month
Here's how to enter La Bloga's give-away of this exquisite list of highly thought-of titles, and some great discoveries:
Dream in Color By Linda Sánchez , Loretta Sánchez ISBN: 0446508047
Gunmetal Black By Daniel Serrano ISBN: 0446194131
The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters By Lorraine López ISBN: 0446699217
Bless Me, Ultima By Rudolfo Anaya ISBN: 0446675369
Brownsville By Oscar Casares ISBN: 9780316146807
The Hummingbird's Daughter By Luis Urrea ISBN: 0316154520
The General and the Jaguar By Eileen Welsome ISBN: 0316715999
Tomorrow They Will Kiss By Eduardo Santiago ISBN: 0316014125
Each Saturday at noon Pacific time, La Bloga will post a set of questions related to the week's / month's La Bloga columns. Attentive readers will know the answers, capable researchers will quickly teclar a few key words in the blogger search field to produce the answers. Click the entry button, fill in your name and mailing address, and the first entry with all the right answers will receive in the mail the set of 8 titles. Note, the noon Pacific time gives coast-to-coast readers the same chance to win.
Sample question: What Leonardo Padura novels have been reviewed at La Bloga? Click here for your answer.
That's September's penultimate Tuesday. Fall has fell, Californians will dine al fresco one last time then we move inside. Time to chop down a few orange trees and eucalyptus, get that cozy fire going.
La Bloga welcomes your comments on this or any column. Simply click the comments counter below. Remember, too, La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. To inquire about topics, or to submit a fully developed review, announcement, other idea, click here.
See you next Saturday for our first quiz. We're giving away 5 sets.