Friday, July 21, 2006

Why Good Crime Fiction Can Be Excellent Literature

Manuel Ramos

Translated from the Spanish by John King

Occasionally I am asked about the validity of crime fiction. The question comes up in various forms, sometimes as "Why do you write genre?" Or, "Is there any long-lasting importance to a mystery or detective story?" And other variations of that theme.

Once in a while the question is about Chicano or Latino Crime Fiction and whether such writing can be included in the broad definition of Chicano/a or Latino/a Literature.

Upon reflection, such questions do not offend me. Good, critical analysis of any aspect of the culture is healthy and such analysis might begin with questions, skepticism. I have said that what Chicano/a Literature really needs is a handful of provocative, objective, and maybe acerbic critics - folks who will ask the hard questions and then provide legitimate, if not always popular, answers. Of course, the writers will continue to write and define the literature any way they want, no importa what the critics say.

An easy way to answer some of the questions is by pointing the questioner to a particular book with the brief instruction to "Read that."

Read Adiós Hemingway by Leonardo Padura Fuentes.

Padura is a Cuban writer, but that is like saying José Alfredo Jiménez was a Mexican songwriter. Placing a mundane label on a virtuoso's talent and art will not suffice for the actual experience of that art and talent.

Padura has achieved a certain amount of fame and notoriety for his writing. He is well established in Europe and won the 1998 Premio Hammett of the Asociación Internacional de Escritores Policiacos (International Association of Crime Writers). He is known not only for moving the Cuban detective novel from the paralysis of established format and structure into a revitalized and energetic art form, but also for using his novels to authentically observe and describe the state of Cuban life and society. In an interview last year for, Padura said: "[R]eaders will ask how it is possible that an author who lives, writes and publishes in Cuba can talk so freely about the reality of life in Cuba and even criticise decisions of the authorities. But this is the truth. I live in Cuba, I write in Cuba and my books have never been censored." He also said, "I have no interest to live outside Cuba for many reasons and the first is that I am Cuban and it is my country, despite its problems, limitations and shortages." Of particular relevance to my point are his comments about how he viewed his writing: "I simply had the intention to write a novel that would have a detective character. I wanted to write about Cuban reality, with an incisive vision, from within Cuban reality. I have always understood literature as having a social function. The result was that my novel contrasted sharply with what had been done before and that set a standard for others to follow."

For Adiós Hemingway, Padura resurrected his ironic and bedeviled detective, Mario Conde, now a former cop who appeared to have investigated his final case in 1989 in the novel Autumn Landscape, the last of Padura's Four Seasons cycle. But eight years later, Conde is drawn back into police work, albeit unofficially, by his former colleague, Manuel Palacios, now head of Conde's old squad, with the enticing news that a skeleton had been found on the grounds of Ernest Hemingway's Havana home, Finca Vigía, and that the body must have been buried forty years before, when the Nobel Prize winner still lived in the house.

How could Conde resist? The aging investigator has attempted to become a writer but he suffers from incredible writer's block and has, in fact, produced very little. Although a great admirer of Hemingway's fiction, he has soured on the myth and reality of Hemingway's life - too many jilted wives and lovers, betrayed friends, and dead animals on display.

Conde takes on the case for the most basic of reasons. "Know something, Manolo? I would love to find out that it was Hemingway who killed that guy. That bastard has been getting up my nose for years. But it pisses me off to think they might land him with a murder he didn't commit. That's why I'm going to look into it."

Conde's search for the truth is, as one might expect, a trip of self-realization by Conde as well as a nostalgic look back to 1958 Cuba, on the edge of the revolution's triumph, and a time when the great man, Hemingway, started to understand and accept his mortality and humanity and, thus, his fraility. The story is direct and on target with no wasted words or author tangents. And yet, the book is full and satisfying.

Among many other themes, Adios Hemingway examines the aging process and the sense of loss that two men, who never knew each other, share across the decades, linked by a decomposed body hidden under earth, myth, and legend. For example, Conde has his close friends and his set rituals, but he lacks romance and passion. His vitality has waned and he triggers sexual release with thoughts of the beautiful and sensuous Ava Gardner parading naked around the grounds of Finca Vigía, just as Hemingway was reduced to using a pair of Gardner's black knickers as a wrap for one of his handguns - a weird thrill that combined two of his obsessions.

One gauge of a good book, for me, is whether it makes me want to read other books. A few pages into Adios Hemingway and I was digging out The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigía Edition, because Big Two-Hearted River is essential to understanding the character of Mario Conde. Another chapter and I had to pull up Hemingway: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers, just to check on Padura's numerous references to Hemingway details - the ugly split with John Dos Passos, the flaking skin from patches of melanoma, the paranoia (justified, as it turned out) about FBI surveillance, etc. And now that I have finished Padura's novel I want to again read Hemingway, and another book by Padura.



msedano said...

I hope I can finish Saving the World today, so tomorrow I can start saying goodby to Papa.

Maybe with the democratization of criticism, ie, the "blogsphere", crime fiction or any "genre" writing, will be freed the strictures of prescriptivist values?

Is Mickey Spillane literature? Dang tootin' How can I say that? To quote Mickey, "It was easy."

Manuel Ramos said...

Although I would not bring up Mike Hammer as the first example of a "literary detective", I will have to agree with you, even though, to quote Sam Spade, "I'll have some rotten nights - but that'll pass." Let me know what you think of Padura's book.