Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review: Havana Gold, Leonardo Padura | Alltop | 8 Free Books

London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2008.
ISBN: 9781904738282

Michael Sedano

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.

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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!

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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.

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See you next Saturday for our first quiz. We're giving away 5 sets.



Manuel Ramos said...

Thanks for the review. Bloody well done. I will get this book now that you have reminded me that Padura is a superb writer and storyteller.

james wilkins said...

Leonardo Padura Fuentes (born 1955) is a Cuban novelist and journalist. As of 2007, he is one of Cuba's best known writers internationally. In English and some other languages, he is often referred to by the shorter form of his name, Leonardo Padura. He has written movie scripts, two books of short stories and a series of detective novels translated into 10 languages.
james wilkins

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SuffolkVeteranSales said...

It is absolutely ridiculous to blockade our neighbor Cuba. We should instead be friends with a great nation and peoples.