Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: Havana Fever.

Leonardo Padura. Translated by Peter Bush. Havana Fever. London (UK): Bitter Lemon Press, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1-904738-36-7

Michael Sedano

Havana Fever burns with resentment that Cuba’s ruined culture shows itself in every vestige of its modern form. Whole barrios given over to crime and desperation, a city whose collapsed and patchwork buildings reflect society’s structural failure that began with Batista’s overthrow. Decaying mansions are little different from outrageous underclass brothels, the one stripped of anything saleable, the other sold out by the revolution. There’s no love lost between Leonardo Padura and official Cuba. But these things have become commonplaces of Cuban exile writers.

What sets Havana Fever apart from other Cuban exile novels is Padura’s absence of malice. His lead character, Mario Conde, isn’t looking to clean up crime, corruption, morality. He’s been retired from the police for ten years now. Conde’s retirement, in his late 40s, has come about because his old boss was railroaded into retirement and Conde acted to protest the injustice. Padura shares this information in a small plot divagation. Conde doesn’t regret the history, he wastes no emotion in lamentation, not for the public, commodity shortages, blackmarketeering, nor police corruption.

Today, the Count sells books and leaves the world as he finds it, to its own devices. But out of the blue, a gut feeling burns through his chest when he stumbles upon a Cuban equivalent of the ancient Library of Alexandria.

The novel will delight bibliophiles with its description of the Montes de Oca library: the earliest book published in Cuba, nineteenth century treatises featuring hand colored engraved plates, first editions of laureates of Cuban poetry—autographed. Conde could defraud the clueless owners but instead gives them a fair price, and points out the rarest volumes that must not be sold.

Such nobility cannot go unpunished. Leafing through a cookbook filled with impossible recipes, Conde finds a folded rotogravure photo from the 1950s of a gorgeous nightclub singer wrapped in gold lamé, Violeta del Rio. Conde falls in love not solely owing to her allure but because the photo awakens a dim memory and that nagging gut feeling that something is not right.

The magazine page leads Conde on the trail of a cold case murder dating back to the heydey of Havana nightlife. Batista gets the boot, sending his gangster business partners, along with rich Cubanos, in headlong flight with whatever dollars remain of their riches, leaving behind their mansions to fall into rot. One such Cubano, Alcides Montes de Oca, scion of a respected family de nombre, had fallen head over heels with the alluring Lady of the Night, bolero singer Violeta del Rio. The rich man flees in 1960, without Violeta del Rio. Because police have their hands full investigating counterrevolutionary terrorist violence, the singer’s death by cyanide remains an open case.

Montes de Oca leaves behind the fabulous library, the devastated mansion, and three caretakers, his dedicated personal assistant and her two children—Montes de Oca’s children carrying the surname of a chauffeur to keep up appearances. The novel follows Conde from sympathy for the emaciated brother and sister to suspicion that one of them withholds secrets to unlock the mysterious death of the almost forgotten singer. On the trail, the detective tracks down a musiciologist who identifies the single recording of Violeta del Rio, the singer’s top rival--a once-ravishing beauty now a sadly vain old woman holding in bitterness at her fifty year old feud, and another wizened body formerly known as Lotus Flower--a sensational nude dancer and high-class madam, who gladly shows off a portrait of her young self in costume.

The mystified Conde calls upon all his resources to resolve events the reader already knows from letters interjected into the narrative. Mysterious love letters by Nena to her Love parallel Conde’s investigation. Love is definitely Montes de Oca. Nena is not a character in the story and there’s some fun to be had in guessing her name. The letters allude to the events Conde has not yet tracked, filling in some details, offering misinformation here and there, but eventually spelling out the killer’s identity, and Nena’s. It’s a fun bit of dramatic irony, with added irony, Conde will never read the letters, the poisoner having destroyed them.

Beyond weaving an engaging mystery, crafting vivid tours of battered barrios, sentimental interviews that evoke that earlier hustle and bustle, Havana Fever reminds a reader of the inevitability of getting old. And its consequences. Conde has lost a step, in fact gets his ass kicked viciously because he loses focus. Conde’s best friend, Skinny Carlos, is killing himself with food, alcohol, and as much excess as a paraplegic shot in Angola can muster. Carlos deserves a happy ending, Conde reasons, and spends lavishly to bring rich food and quality rum to regular late night bullsessions.

Cuba is aging too, but not as well. The old are starving to death and when they’re gone, memories of the old days will be gone with them. While the old order changes it yields place to ever more bullshit, corruption, drugs. The gaps grow between then and now. And what can one do about it? Make compromises, survive, hold to your principles. They are their own reward. Or, one can leave, disappear from involvement in whatever comes next. Or, one can give in.

A final thought on publishing emerges in the British English of the translation. Cars have boots and bonnets, an envelope contains a pair of black and white winkle-pickers, and several colloquialisms drive my curiosity what Padura’s Spanish actually read. These linguistic lacunae aside, Peter Bush offers a masterful completely readable text that flows with a beautiful vocabulary and a clean sense of authenticity. Readers who have enjoyed Conde’s earlier stories, notably the Havana color series, Black, Red, Blue, and Gold novels, will find this story of the aging Conde a capstone to the series. In an afterword, Padura reveals he’s been working on movie versions of his work, and that is fabulous news. Read the books, read Havana Fever, and you can join those discussions one day, “it didn’t happen like that in the book, but…”

And that's the penultimate Tuesday in July, 2009, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.


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Tom Miller said...

At the beginning of the review, it says “There’s no love lost between Leonardo Padura and official Cuba. But these things have become commonplaces of Cuban exile writers.” Am I mistaken to believe that Padura still very much lives in Havana? At least he did as of a year or two ago. That’s one of the appealing qualities of his work – no one can blame his point of view on whining expats. He lives and works there. To what extent his work is published in Cuba is another matter, but to refer to him as an “exile writer” is an unwarranted prejudice.

msedano said...

tom miller, you have a winning point there. i do not know where "mantilla" is, where padura wrote this. i note in reading a frontspiece padura "lives in cuba." data that do not support a warrant he is a real exiled writer. he writes like one. thank you for pointing this out.

myself, i must wait another few years for the blockade to lift of its own weight, and i'll head to havana, or mantilla, and buy the vato a bironga as a mea culpa for the ascription.