Crime pays for Padura

A contemplative cop can give us clues about the career of one of Cuba’s most accomplished contemporary writers


Havana Gold
Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush
2008, Bitter Lemon Press
286 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

ONE OF THE most fascinating dimensions of Mario Conde, the contemplative cop whose introspection is mined like a seam by Leonardo Padura through a series of well-received crime novels, is that his creator is a journalist.

Padura cut his teeth as a journalist and his stories featuring Conde have the unmistakeable patina of magazine and newspaper style while reflecting the many opportunities members of the profession gain to gather hard information germane to this kind of narrative.

Why this should be of note is that, in this respect and despite the Cuban anomalies, Padura’s development coincides neatly with a whole generation of writers in Latin America for whom crime fiction is an extension of previous incarnations in the press.

Many of the Latin American writers who have come into print in the last 20 years – from Diego Paszkowski to Oscar Núñez Olivas – honed their skills in busy newsrooms. They have been immersed in the reality of crime and corruption in rapidly urbanising societies and, as a result, have also had access to information their work generates that allows them to give their writing blunt authenticity.

Padura’s career also reflects the similar, limited, financial opportunities open to aspiring novelists in the region initially unable to secure readerships large enough to support them financially. Although he wrote his first novel – a love story – in the early 1980s, it was not until the early 1990s and after several years as a jobbing journalist that his Conde makes his successful appearance. The author has acknowledged the role of journalism in shaping his approach and style as a novelist.

As one LatAmRoB contributor has argued: “Crime is a genre that sells, and authors need to sell in order to keep writing; crime also translates well to the screen, so it is possible that authors are writing with that in mind; and crime is an urban preoccupation, and the writers who dominate the literary infrastructure of countries such as Argentina and Uruguay are urban beasts.”

Stylistic efficiency

While others returning to Padura will tell you Havana Gold is not his best work, and the weakest of the Conde novels, there is an ease, confidence and stylistic efficiency about this mystery that confirms the author’s status as one of Cuba’s most accomplished contemporary writers. It is also notable for its quiet candour about daily struggles on the island – which does not seem so besieged – and for the hints of nostalgia in this post-Soviet Cuba that pokes through the rich banter and petty corruption.

Havana Gold – the fourth book in the prize-winning Havana quartet series – tells the story of Conde’s investigation into the murder of a schoolteacher raped and strangled in her apartment. Under pressure from superiors, the cerebral detective uncovers uncomfortable realities hidden behind Havana’s crumbling facades – and in the process finds himself in the arms of a beautiful, jazz-loving soulmate.

While there is a predictability about his characters, scenarios and, indeed, the cigars, rum and easy, exotic women that are so casually associated with the Cuban capital, Padura is a master at evoking atmosphere – small wonder for a writer who has also written for the screen. He is also the closest Havana has to a laureate, as immersed in the city, its temptations and its friendly repartee as a writer in love with it could be.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer