Leonardo Padura, Havana’s master of the novela negra, tells Gavin O’Toole about his new novel on the murder of Trotsky, freedom of speech in Cuba, and whether his inimitable creation, Mario Conde, will ever die
LEONARDO PADURA is one of Cuba’s most celebrated writers perhaps best known for the prize-winning Havana Quartet series of crime novels featuring Inspector Mario Conde. His most recent Conde title, Havana Fever, is published in English by Bitter Lemon Press . Padura has also written historical works and essays, and is a journalist.
You have often referred to the importance of your experience as a journalist to your literary development, and many Latin American writers have been journalists. What are the reasons for this relationship between journalism and literature in Latin America?
LP – Writers, in the world but particularly Latin America, in general need to have two jobs: literature is a second job often done on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, because royalties are insufficient to live on. In the Latin American case, journalism has been very generous in taking in writers, I think – looking at this from a distance, journalism has been a generous profession. Often in newspapers, certain writers, as was my case, have had certain privileges that allow us to do a different type of journalism, that give us to time to write. I began working on a cultural magazine where I wrote book and theatre, reviews and I worked there three years, but it was at that time I started to write and I wrote several stories and a small novel that was published several years later. In that period in Cuba, books took a long time to come out – it took four or five years from handing the manuscript to the publisher to reaching the bookshop. In 1983, when I was nearly finishing this novel, I began working at a newspaper, and I worked there six years, this was called Juventud Rebelde, it comes out in the afternoons – an evening paper. In those years, however, I did not have time to write because I dedicated myself completely to journalism and writing long reports, above all about historical themes, historical characters, lost legends of Cuban folklore that needed a lot of research. Writing these was a little different because they were like stories; I could not write literature per se, but it was a stage during which I wrote essays, practised the skills of literary writing. First, I got to know a great deal about the history, geography and atmosphere of Cuba, because the job took me across the country and, secondly, I had time to write those works, elaborate on them, seek out an angle, a distinctive perspective. In 1989, when I left the newspaper and went to work at another literary magazine and I again had time to write, I became aware of everything I had learned in those years at the newspaper. So in the 1990s, I began to work at this other literary magazine called La Gaceta de Cuba and immediately I wrote the novel Pasado Perfecto, which here is translated as Havana Blues, and it was something that I had been building up inside. I wrote the first version very quickly – in three months – then I worked on it a great deal, but it was like a necessity for me to write and I realised that I had learned how to write whilst working on the newspaper. I believe Hemingway was right when he said that the writer at a given moment of his career must leave newspapers. So that’s what happened to me: journalism was absorbing all my possibilities, all my time, my intelligence at that moment, when I separated myself from the newspaper, I realised that was a moment in which I had matured in age and knowledge sufficiently to write.
Are you saying that for a journalist to become a novelist there comes a moment in your career when, financially and in also in terms of maturity and writing skill, you can take that jump and put journalism behind you?
LP – No. I never left journalism, since 1990 I have worked on that magazine, I write articles, long interviews as well, but it was the moment in which Cuba’s economic crisis began. The Soviet Union disappears, there is no paper and even the magazine I worked on does not come out for two years. And this was another advantage, because I could dedicate more time to writing. In 1995, I won a prize in Spain that at that time represented a very important amount of money for me, and just at that time I had decided to leave the magazine, so since then, since 1995, I have dedicated myself just to writing. But I still collaborate with several newspapers, magazines, and, above all, with the Interpress agency, I am one of their columnists. For example, two years ago we published a book of past columns, a selection of columns written between 1995-2005 called Entre dos siglos (Between Two Centuries), that is the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, and they are columns, chronicles rather, loosely related to the culture and life of Cuba. So, journalism has always served as an alternative allowing me to express what I feel, and I can see that Cuban life is not always possible to locate in a novel. I continue to be a novelist and journalist.
LP – No. More a novelist than a journalist.
You have spoken of the advantages of making a career as a novelist after or through journalism, but what are the disadvantages? Are there any obstacles to do with the writing style of journalism, or disadvantages of having been a journalist, in terms of developing a novelist’s perspective?
LP – No. I don’t think so, I think that one has to learn to differentiate the distinct languages one works with. For example, I have also written books of essays, I have written a book of essays about about the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a writer of the Conquest era; two books about Alejo Carpentier; one about crime fiction, above all Hispanic-American crime fiction; various essays of one type or another; and I have always taken forward, side by side, the essay, journalism, and literature, the novel, alternating between one and the other. When I wrote, for example, the novel that has not yet been published in English that is called La novela de mi vida (The Novel of My Life), that is a novel that has a very important component of historical research because the central character is a poet at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I remember that there was a moment in which I was researching, reading history, reading about this poet, his biography, his work and, when I felt that I knew enough about this man to write about him, I stopped my research because, if I had taken another step, I would have entered the terrain of the essayist, who has to know exactly: when he wrote such and such poem, why he wrote it. What interested me was knowing how this man felt, what was happening in his life when he wrote this poem, and not the technique of the poem or what was going on in Cuban literature at that moment. So, I was able to differentiate. I know when to stop when I must do journalism, essays or novels. Because just as journalism gives an immediate take on reality, the novel must provide a permanent gaze. So one has to have at any given moment the capacity to know what particular thing is important at that moment and upon what to reflect as a journalist, and which of these things can change in a future that is more or less new and would not be interesting in a novel. I think one has to know where the borders are, no? The frontiers between one form of language and another.
Is it difficult to change between language and mentality in terms of form?
LP – Sometimes it is difficult, and at other times one does not achieve it. Sometimes one passes from one terrain to the other, but in the case of the novel I work a great deal on the text, trying to clean it, and, in the case of journalism, I use many literary resources. I like my journalistic writing to be contaminated with literature, personalities, forms of language, culture, that are not always common in journalism.
Freedom of speech
Obviously you are in a privileged position to observe Cuban journalism. Journalism elsewhere has problems, often because of market pressures. But what condition is Cuban journalism in? Is it healthy in terms of freedom of expression or do you see pressures to restrict what people are writing?
LP – New internet technologies have created a problem for the Cuban propaganda system because, for 40 years, there has only been one type of journalism in Cuba. In Cuba, the newspapers, the magazines, radio stations, television, all belong to the State. And in Cuba the State, government and party are the same. And the government, the party and the State think like Fidel Castro. As such, there is only one type of thought, and more than media of communication and information they have been converted into media of propaganda. The internet has broken this down and there have appeared alternative routes, at times very narrow, at times very complicated because having access to the internet in Cuba is not easy. Not everyone has it, but these routes exist. I think that for many years one of the great problems of the Cuban intellectual world is that there has not existed a much more open form of journalism, more critical, more complex in terms of its perspectives on reality. We are also talking here about a journalism that would be contrary to the government – one might say a journalism that, whilst in favour of the government, has a critical perspective on real things. Every now and again there is a congress, a meeting, a speech in which journalists are asked to be more critical, more participative. But something immediately happens and the “shell” shuts again. It closes down again and we’re back to this dull journalism, so non-analytical when it comes to reality. I would say that within 50 years, someone reading a Cuban newspaper and reading one of my novels would, well, say that here are two different countries. Because in this book are situations from Cuban life that never appear in this newspaper. And it is not because the newspaper should be written like a novel or the novel should be written like a newspaper, but that what is needed is a journalism much more reflective upon reality – and that does not exist in Cuba.
Are things changing?
LP – There have been a small changes since Fidel’s illness. I have just read on the internet recently in the Spanish newspaper El País that at the Havana Book Fair an alternative book was released whose author was warned not to launch this book. He did so anyway, and nothing happened. In another era, this would not have happened. That is, many perspectives have been changing – in the cultural world above all – beginning in the 1990s, and what Cubans most expect now are changes in the economy, in the Cuban economic system. People are not proposing many political changes, but economic changes, because the main problem in Cuba is how to sort out the daily economic hardships of people. [President] Raúl Castro himself has admitted that, in Cuba, wages are insufficient to live on. So if in a country where there is one fundamental employer – because only 4 or 5 per cent of Cubans are independent workers and the rest work for the State – the State itself admits that the salary it pays people is not sufficient, then there is clearly an economic problem, a relationship that has been broken. The people need – I think – to earn four or five salaries in order to be able to live more or less normally, and it is from that which derive all the survival alternatives that people employ. Someone who has family in Miami who sends them money, someone doing a second job, another who makes a small business of whatever he can, and one way or another they sort themselves out. No matter what, there is an important tier of the population (I am not sure how large) that lives in conditions of poverty – because in Cuba there is no misery, in Cuba everyone eats, everyone goes to school, to the doctor, and there is not this indigence that exists in other Latin American countries. But these people do live in a certain degree of poverty.
Is poverty the main obstacle to the development of new writers in Cuba? Is the need, as with you, to do two or three jobs the principal obstacle to Cuban literature?
LP – It could be. But I think, at this time, there are about 10, 12, 15, Cuban writers who live inside and outside Cuba, moving within the international market, fundamentally the Spanish market which is the main market for us – which is a very difficult and competitive market because it publishes many books – who are publishing regularly. And that’s not a few, if you compare it with the number of writers from Panama or Costa Rica or Guatemala or the Dominican Republic. That’s to say, there are a number – not large, but important – of Cuban authors who have situated themselves in this international market. Inside Cuba, there are many people who write: the fundamental problem, one of the fundamental problems, is that the genre that is most written in Cuba is poetry, and there is no market for poetry so poets have to have two jobs to survive. Poetry is like an expressive necessity but it is not a profession, it never was, and these people work in other places. I do believe that what is lacking a little among Cuban writers, including those with talent who have the capacity to write, is a little discipline. And perhaps the difference between what I am and what colleagues of my generation are is this working discipline: I am very disciplined, I work every day, I force myself to work and people say to me: “How can you work so much and I say to them, well, because work interests me, I like working and do not get distracted by other things. But the economy, without a doubt, has an important bearing on literature. For example, in the last five years I have dedicated myself to writing just one novel, the one that I have just finished, a novel that required much research because it is about the assassination of Trotsky and the assassin’s story. This book is called El hombre que amaba a los perros, which is the title of a Raymond Chandler story, “The Man who Liked Dogs”, and deals with three characters: the assassin Ramón Mercader, Trotsky, and a totally fictitious character in Cuba. And for me to be able to work on this novel for five years, I have had to live, and thanks to the fact that my books have been published in Spain, the UK, France, and to journalism, I have been able to enjoy an economic base that has allowed me to dedicate five years, completely, to this book. And, moreover, I know that as from now, for at least another year I will not be writing another book, because I need to get out of me this entire world in order to be able to enter another. So for this reason, economic circumstances are very important at the time of carrying out a work that one knows one needs time for, needs conditions of tranquillity for. Work also implies costs: I had to go to Moscow, the Cervantes Institute invited me, but I had to pay part of the trip. That is, there is also an element of investment in order to be able to carry out these projects, and in Cuba the grant system does not work well, because they can give you a grant of 5,000 Cuban pesos and all we are talking about is £300 – and with £300 you can’t live for a year or two! So the grant system is also something that can’t help us.
Talking of the support that the State gives through grants to literature, to Cuban writers, obviously the advantage poets have in Cuba is that their patron is the State, which publishes them?
LP – Yes this is important.
But in general terms, does the Cuban State do enough for Cuban literature in your opinion?
LP – I believe it does everything it can in terms of publishing, it publishes poets, storytellers, essayists and novelists who, well, have greater ease in publishing. That is, in terms of publishing itself, it helps them a lot. I believe that where the mechanism does not function is in promotion, that is, in how to locate the writer in the context of his social importance in a place like Cuba, where books are so important. Cuban people read a lot and I feel that the promotion, the valuation of the writer, is insufficient, within Cuba and internationally.
Talking of the problems that Cuban writers face in disseminating their work, am I correct in saying that your work appeared in French before English?
LP – Yes.
So does this reveal a problem with the English market for Latin American literature, in Spanish? Obviously publishers here tend to concentrate on writers well known in their countries but not new writers with originality. Is this a problem with the English market?
LP – For a Cuban writer, let’s go from the general to the particular, situating himself in the international market (Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Britain) from Cuba: he may have opted to seek a literary agent in Spain, above all. As there are not many novelists, those novelists that form the 10, 12, 15 writers that we were talking about earlier have managed to place their works in the Spanish, French, German markets etc. In the case of the English language, there are two main routes you can take, which is the British and the North American. The North American is practically shut by all the embargo laws. It is very complicated for a Cuban writer to be able to penetrate this market; directly, it’s impossible, it would have to be through an agent, and the North American market is very closed to the extent that they publish literature, above all, that makes money. There is a sector that is important, but economically insignificant, which is that of the university presses, but for a novelist to publish a novel through a university press is the kiss of death, because they are small and distribute very little, so it’s not the best way. So there remains the British route, but this has a problem not solely relating to the Cubans, Latin Americans, Spaniards, which is in general – and that is that they publish very few translations. Among books published, translations occupy a very small proportion and, of course, in this limited space there is a series of important authors from other languages, for example: if there’s a book of mine and one of Günter Grass, they’ll publish Günter Grass. And so, those great writers from other languages proceed to occupy those spaces for possible translations. So finding a publisher in the anglophone world, both North American and British, is very complicated for any writer, and especially Cuban writers. That said, then something else happens that is very satisfactory: that is, when a Cuban author manages to publish in these markets, almost immediately it awakens a specific interest. We are not talking about publishing 40,000 to 60,000 examples, but there is immediately, partly critical and partly curiosity, a series of readers – and an interest thereafter in seeing what those writers who come from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia are doing. This guarantees a small but viable possibility of publication, and I think, for example, that what Bitter Lemon Press has done, publishing fundamentally translations, is notable, very necessary for us writers and for you the English-language reader, because it helps you to stay in contact with all these other languages, all these writers who normally aren’t published.
Isn’t it a feature of the market in general, this domination by large publishers that only promote big authors?
LP – Right now we are living through a period in which the publishing world is going to undergo very great modifications because, up until two years ago, a large number of books were published, and of these only a given percentage sold and the rest were returned. But now, with the crisis, together with the new technologies that are emerging, the electronic book, I think we are at the start of a change whose outcome is unclear and when I speak with my publishers, at Bitter Lemon, those in Barcelona, Portugal, they still don’t know themselves how this new era in the book world is going to unfold. It’s logical that there’s a new era, because I think that, beginning with the massive application of computer technology and the appearance of the internet, the world has been changing. And the world of books is not going to avoid these changes.
Obviously the genre you write in is called crime or noir – you call it the novela negra – but the book that you have just finished does not appear to be a novela negra but a work of history. Have you changed your perspective as an author? Like Picasso, have you put your “black period” behind you?
LP – No. What’s happened is that, to this black period, I’ve added other colours. I tried with this novel: from the start the reader will have the impression he is reading a novela negra, but it is a novela negra in which the crime takes place half way through the book, that is, the writing style of the novela negra has been completely changed but the spirit of the novela negra is present. And this change in the structure, this movement of the structure of the novela negra, I have also used in other novels like La novela de mi vida or this novel about Trotsky and Mercader, where there is an assassination. There is not the habitual police investigation, but I try to make the reader feel that he’s reading a novel in which he has to participate to know what it is that is hidden behind what we are apparently seeing.
In this case the crime is in Mexico?
LP – In Mexico. He died in Mexico…
Is the novel set in Mexico?
LP – No. It is set in seven to eight different places. It takes place in Moscow, Mexico, Havana, Paris, New York. It is a novel that transpires a great deal in Spain, supposedly during the Civil War, in many places.
So why the fascination with Trotsky? And within this fascination, what do you think about the near hysteria that currently exists about another historical personality: Che Guevara?
LP – In the case of Trotsky it was a personal fascination that was first and foremost to do with the fact that in Cuba in the period in which I was a university student one could not talk about Trotsky, it was as if Trotsky did not exist, there was only the Soviet version: that Trotsky had not existed. The first time I went to Mexico I was at Trotsky’s house and I felt that there was something very strong that I did not know about, and I started out, first, with a great curiosity that eventually became converted into the idea for a novel. And in the case of Che, Che continues to be for nearly every country in Latin America the referent of rebellion, of the man who refuses to be a statesman and remains a permanent rebel. And I believe this generates great attraction for many people, especially the young.
Is the Havana of Havana Fever the Havana of the future, is this what the city will become?
LP – It’s a little the Havana that exists today, and I fear it will become the Havana that we see in the future. It is a Havana that has changed a great deal since the 1990s, the crisis of the ’90s, the economic crisis that was also, and above all, a crisis of values, a moral crisis. The crisis provoked a series of changes in the mentality of people and it is in that era that prostitution reappears in Cuba, drugs begin to circulate again, tourism again becomes an important economic option – this whole world that had once existed and was again coming to the surface. So I think that if there are important changes in Cuba, this world could surface even more, but simply as one of the risks that any society that has to make changes has to run. Hopefully those changes will not be dramatic – traumatic is the word with regard to these types of attitudes, these forms of dangerous behaviour. In any case, the phenomena of drugs, prostitution in Cuba continue to be on a small scale – it is simply not the fact that Cuba is a country where drug-trafficking or prostitution are manifestly evident. What happens is that in a novel of the type that I wrote, it was important for this element to surface.
Are you saying that there is danger in change in Cuba – that the danger of liberalisation could be a return to the Havana of Batista, of decadence?
LP – It could be, although I don’t think it would be like it was in the 1950s. Cuban society in the last 50 years has changed enormously: the Havana of a country where people have a greater intellectual, educational level, where the woman has a role much more important in society and we have changed, is very different. Cuba has changed a great deal. There was a revolution and this changed many concepts; anyway, a return to the past can always be dangerous, as happened in the Soviet Union, in Russia. But this must not be converted into the phantasm impeding change. Change is necessary, and what one has to try and do is separate out the negative effects of any social, economic, political movement so they are not traumatic.
Trotsky had an American bodyguard, a young man who died when Siqueiros attacked the compound, but in today’s context, that of Barack Obama, of a promise of change in terms of relations, does your new book speak of the possibility of links, of things in common between Cuba and countries like the US?
LP – No. I don’t go into this point exactly. I think it is a book that is to do with the reasons the project failed, the great utopian project of the 20th century, which is that of creating a society in which we would all be equal. The fundamental reason it failed, that is, the most visible reason, is Stalinism, which was a deformation of a system that provoked all those crimes over many years. But also, before Stalinism, there already existed certain elements of a lack of democracy within the Bolshevik party and within the society that this party established, and it’s about this that I try to reflect upon in the novel. In some ways, I think that what is happening today in the world demonstrates this: we need a utopia of a different type of society, of a society in which the relationship between peoples would be more egalitarian and to avoid situations like those we are living through at this moment.
So you are not criticising the idea of utopia?
LP – Not at all.
Are you criticising one utopia in particular?
LP – Yes, I think we must have a utopia – mankind since Greek antiquity and throughout the whole era of modernity has been creating utopias: the Atlantis of the Greeks was a utopia, later Thomas More, all of those thinkers that were creating these societies where they requested the necessity or the possibility of overcoming the differences that existed in other societies that they considered imperfect. As such, I believe that the solution for the world is neither the capitalism we are living through nor the communism of the kind established in the Soviet Union – the Soviet disaster is the best demonstration that it was not the solution. So – and I am no philosopher, I’m no politician – I have no answers, but I am an observer of reality and I can say, well, this reality does not convince me. It has not been the reality through which the great men of humanity thought we could have a better world. But there is some possibility of a better world or, above all, there is a need to construct it and to seek it in some way.
So in this 50th year of the Cuban Revolution, would you say that Cuba is the closest we have come to any utopia or that the effort to create utopia in Cuba was mistaken?
LP – I don’t know if we are more or less close than others, I don’t know if it was all a mistake or not. What I do believe is that Cuba made a revolution that helped many people to improve themselves, many people to have a better life, but that at a given point in this process the same revolution became incapable of providing these people with new choices – because, if I teach you how to use a computer and I tell you that the internet is a powerful tool of knowledge but, later, I do not give you access to an internet account, I am blocking this modern development, no? So, the relationship that exists in Cuba between the things that have been positive and those that have not been or have been definitively negative is very contradictory.
And have you met Fidel?
LP – No, we were a few metres from him once, but no more.
You say the Cuban problem is fundamentally economic, but here in this country many people are not interested in politics, which is surely the same as in Cuba, about which people speak as if everyone were totally political.
LP – Yes that’s right, Cubans talk a lot about politics. A few days ago we were in Greece, in Greece everyone talks about politics as well and we began to speak and they said, well, the Cubans only talk about politics and politics forms part of their daily lives. When the Cuban government decides that one individual is going to be given a loaf of bread daily, a loaf of 20g daily, for a booklet of ration tickets, it’s a political decision, thereafter it becomes an economic one. So it’s politics from the loaf to everything one does in one’s daily life – and I think that has perhaps created an excess of politics, and people have tired of it a little. I think this is what has just been happening in the United States. In the United States a political change has not been set out, what is being set out at least is a change of language, of rhetoric, of social possibilities.
Your relationship with Mario Conde, your creation, has now been developing in, like, six novels. But is he getting old like the rest of us? Are you going to kill him off one day – will this special man die?
LP – I’m going to try and ensure that he lives many years, as many as I do. In the life of Mario Conde, when I wrote Adios a Hemingway, which is the first book I wrote after finishing the series, there is a lapse of 10 years, and I had to take various decisions. One was that Mario Conde had got older, but also the people around him and I said, okay, how can I write about Mario Conde without his friends, the mum of his friend, who makes the food? So I said, these characters have to be immortal and I decided to keep them through all my books as long as I could. Mario Conde, to me, has the great importance that he is a personality who has allowed me to function like a crystal ball through which I can observe Cuban reality. I can talk about this Cuban reality without being myself despite the fact that we have much in common. So, I think, Mario Conde is a character who will continue to allow me to provide this analysis, to take this journey through Cuban reality.
Is there anything about him that you don’t like? No one is perfect…
LP – No. There was a problem, a grave problem, and that is that Mario Conde didn’t like being a policeman. I obliged him to be a policeman, that is, it’s not that I had problems with Mario, it’s that he had problems with me. And so it’s for that reason in the fourth novel of the Havana Noir -Paisaje de Otoño series I said, evidently, this man cannot continue being a policeman because he’ll kill himself one day. Now we have a relationship that is more cordial because he is dedicated to buying and selling old books.
Police forces outside Cuba have many problems – could Mario Conde one day offer to help them?
LP – I have asked myself several times if it possible to locate Mario Conde outside the Cuban context and I think it would be very difficult, it could for me be fun trying to locate Mario Conde, for example, in a city like London where all the cars drive on the other side of the road, where traditionalism is maintained by contrast with a Cuba where practically everything changes and he is always seeking that which is in the past. It could be fun and, intellectually, an interesting exercise. But Mario Conde is a man that can only move in the streets of Havana, he only knows how to speak the language of Havana and I think forcing this character to make this change would be fatal.