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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Havana Blue, by Leonardo Padura (Fuentes) (trade, $14.95) (c1991)

Leonardo Padura has provided a luscious look at an area of the world that has been cut off to most Americans since the late '50s: Cuba. Although the main character is a world-weary, disillusioned, heavy-drinking, angst-ridden, Hemingway-worshipping thwarted novelist and current police detective, Mario Conde, the novel is rich with odes to what we think of when we think of Cuba: cigars, rum, savory foods, earthy women.

The novel begins with a confusion of pronouns. "I" and "he," we eventually realize, refer to the same person, Mario Conde, nicknamed "Count." Why does the current story – set in 1989 Havana – have Mario's voice in the third person, and why is any reference to Mario's past voiced in the first? It is not for me to reveal, but it is part of the intricate texture the author weaves in his debut book in the Conde series.

In 1989, Mario is in his late 30s. It has been 17 years since he and his school friends were full of hopes and plans for the future. Among those former friends are Rafael, a current government economics minister, and Tamara, his wife and Conde's secret youthful desire. Rafael is reported missing by Tamara, and Conde is assigned the case.

At this point in his life, Conde is lonely, despairing of what the future holds for him. His de facto family is actually his high school friend Skinny and Skinny's mother, Josefina, a fine, fine cook. Padura describes in loving detail the meals Josefina cooks for Skinny. Want a taste? Listen to Josefina describe a meal Conde has to forego because of work:

…[M]alangas [a yam-like veggie] you bought in a sauce and added plenty of garlic and bitter orange; some pork fillets...marinated...; the black beans are getting nice and squashy, like you lot like them, they're getting real tasty, and now I'll add a spot of the Argentine olive oil I bought in the corner store; I've lowered the flame under the rice, and have added more garlic, as advised by that Nicaraguan pal of yours. And salad: lettuce, tomato and radishes. Oh, well, and coconut jam with grated cheese … You died on me, Condesito?

Listen to Conde's boss describe one of his treasured cigars:

I can't understand why you prefer to smoke two packets of cigarettes a day rather than one Havana. That transforms you. And I don't mean it has to be a Davidoff 5000 or another good Corona, a Romeo y Julieta Cedros No 2, for example, a Montecristo No 3 or a Rey del Mundo of whatever size but a good dark-skinned cigar that pulls gently and burns evenly: that's what one calls living, Mario, or the nearest one ever gets. Kipling said a woman is but a woman, but a good puro, as they call them in Europe, is much more. I can tell you the fellow was absolutely right, because I may not know much about women, but I know lots about Havanas. One is a fiesta for the senses, a riot of pleasure, my boy: it revives the sight, awakens taste, rekindles touch and creates the lovely taste that goes so well with an after-dinner cup of coffee.

Never mind the mystery!

But back to the mystery. After many years of not seeing her, Mario comes face to face with Tamara, whose ability to stun Mario has not lessened. Does Mario really want to find Rafael? There are many unresolved conflicts and emotions that Mario must finally face head on. Rafael was the golden boy in high school and is now the golden boy in the ministry, scheduled for bigger and better things. As Mario digs deeper, he uncovers potentially unsavory aspects of Rafael's life. Or has someone been intentionally maligning him, and later murdered him? Padura draws us along a crooked path to solve the mystery, but each twist examines some element of the nature of practical survival and government in Cuba.

Mario is too sensitive to be a genuine disillusioned, hard-boiled, noir anti-hero, but he does the requisite excessive drinking and has the requisite killer of a hangover. He is too tortured about things for which I have no empathy. He admits his lack of courage in situations that, had he stood tall, would have provided material for a different kind of book. I am glad Padura wrote the book he did. There are about five more in the series so far, but they have only recently begun to be translated into English.

I think this is a book that deserves a second reading for all the finer points to sink in. Woe is me that I don't have the time, but that is my advice to you. I am anxious to see what the other books in the series hold, in what direction Padura takes Mario.

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