Leonardo Padura, Cuba: Havana Nights
Set in each of the four seasons of 1989, the award-winning Havana Quartet by Leonardo Padura goes to the dark heart of a city and a country at a crossroads. Described as “ morality tales for the post-Soviet era,” these noirish thrillers have been credited with transforming the face of Latin American crime fiction in the same way that Dashiell Hammett reinvented the drawing-room detective story for the American gangster age.
Padura, a long-form investigative journalist turned political essayist, screenwriter and crime novelist, describes himself as Cuba’s hardest-working writer. As a Cuban writer, he says, he feels a responsibility to reflect the reality of his world.
Despite his enviable literary gifts, Padura’s great passion has always been baseball. He counts pitching ace and Cuban defector “El Duque” Hernandez among his heroes, and still wishes he could have made a living at Cuba’s official sport. Padura lives with his wife, the journalist Lucia Lopez Coll, in the same Havana neighborhood where he was born and where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather lived before him.
Scene of the Crime: Havana
The setting for all of his crime novels, Havana—crumbling, charming and full of contradictions—is the third man in his books, says Padura, after Conde and the plot. The Habanero has described himself as “anchored in Havana,” a hometown he calls both “a great love and a great heartache.” Indeed, as Conde discovers time and again there are two sides to every story in this corrupt, enthralling, heat-soaked island capital.
Lieutenant Mario Conde
Described by The Independent as “louche, sensual and intelligent,” Conde is a cop who would rather be a writer. Divorced, disillusioned and with a taste for drink, Conde is a different kind of Cuban detective character—a sensitive, complicated man with a close circle of friends, a passion for artistic pursuits and a healthy dose of (politically incorrect) skepticism.
Though careful to point out that Conde is not his alter ego, Padura says his literary progeny embodies the disillusionment and melancholy of his generation—those born in the heady days of the revolution left now to sift through its broken promises. So powerfully tied is the character to his creator—Padura has written of Conde as whispering in his ear—that the author extended his detective-hero’s literary life beyond the original Havana Quartet to two additional novels, Adiós, Hemingway and Havana Fever.
You are credited with having changed an entire genre of literature almost by yourself. How do you feel about this?
Actually, in art, no one person really changes anything entirely: there are always innovations and renewals (words that in Spanish seem the same but do not mean the same). It is like an accumulation of apprenticeships made possible from previous works and dissatisfactions with the contemporary works. In my case, my apprenticeship began with the new crime novels being written by such authors as Vazquez Montalban in Spain, McBain in the United States and Rubem Fonseca in Brazil. That literature, more realistic and more artistic, gave me the clue that I needed to do what I wanted: to write Cuban crime fiction that did not look like the crime novels being written in Cuba in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The prize for having written this new Cuban crime novel is, however, lonely for I do not consider myself a crime fiction writer but simply a writer, and since my interests are every day farther from the crime novel, I am alone in the experiment I developed. But then, I also have the prize for having found so many readers in and outside of Cuba, who tell me that they understand better what is happening in the island.
On the other hand, I do not feel “an inventor” of anything, and every time I start to write a novel, I realize that I do not know anything and that for each book that I write I must learn once again how to write such a book... the important thing is to write well and above all that the writing serve to present more than a literary mystery.
How did you come up with the idea of Havana Quartet?
The idea of writing a quartet or tetralogy came to me while I was writing the second novel of the series, Havana Gold. When I wrote the first novel of the quartet, I was unaware. I wanted to write a Cuban crime novel that did not read like the other Cuban crime novels. Instead, I wanted to write the novel I wanted to read.
In this process, I needed a different protagonist and so I begin to create the character of Conde. But once I decided to continue with him, I realized I had given the character a heavier responsibility than to just resolve a “literary” crime: I had made him or he had the potential of becoming my interpreter of Cuba’s reality, the voice of my generation.
It is then that I started to write this second novel and, without an idea of how the others would be, I decided it will be the second among four, and I also decided... the second one would occur in the spring. [Then, the following would be set in] other seasons, summer and fall of the year 1989 that is so symbolic and revealing. Remember that it is in 1989 when things began to fall apart and my generation began to open its eyes to the reality in which were living: the Cuban economic crisis (which is why we are not surprised about the crisis the world is experiencing now) and the moral and political values crisis.
Is it true that sometimes you are asked about Mario Conde as if he was a real person? Why do you think this is?
To my satisfaction, Conde is more than a literature character: he is the son of the Cuban reality, which is why so many readers believe him to be real. The funny thing is that Conde is an absolutely impossible character in his essence: I do not believe that a policeman could be like him. Nevertheless, Conde is almost human in his relationship with his environment, his relationship to the people around him, the lives and crimes presented.
The result of all of this has been that the people, the readers, especially in Cuba, ask me about Conde as if he was someone real; they want to know where he works, how he lives, has he married or not, how are his friends, Carlos and Andres... And I think that because there is the connection between novel and reality, that the character has become a person, too.
Why do you think Cuba is so intriguing to so many readers of your novels, across the world, especially in the United States?
Cuba, especially for Americans, has always been a cultural and geographic reference, and for 50 years, a political reference (point). But even though there is proximity, I believe North Americans have never understood Cuba, which is why there is a great curiosity and a need to get closer look to the Cuban reality. My books breach the path from a different angle for they are not political books, but social ones in which above all, you have a reflection of the way common people think and feel.
Many people around the world ask themselves: How is Cuba? And those of us living in the Island ask ourselves: How is it possible to live in Cuba? They are similar questions but different, and many times outside Cuba the answers are given through the lenses of political stereotypes. Some present Cuba like a paradise and others like hell. In my books, I try to answer the second question for which I don’t always have a response. To be able to say how one lives in Cuba, the first thing is to know how Cubans live, and if it is possible, have the Cubans live in the pages of a book.
How are the recent changes in Cuba influencing your writing?
I am living and commenting about the changes as if I was a journalist, but as a novelist I add them to my experiences and my ideas about my reality and Cuba’s destiny. I cannot write literature that reflects the changes or that depends on the changes. Instead, I write literature that tries to rescue the essence, that which is permanent. Nonetheless, the political cultural changes in Cuba from 1990 to today have helped me feel more free as a writer—even though we know that there is no complete freedom and in my case as a Cuban it is no different... Hopefully, hopefully, the changes will continue and it will mean that all Cubans will be able to live better.
The Havana Quartet
- Havana Red (2005)
- Havana Black (2006)
- Havana Blue (2007)
- Havana Gold (2008)
Other novels featuring Lieutenant Mario Conde
- Adiós Hemingway (2006)
- Havana Fever (2009)
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Funding for MASTERPIECE is provided by Viking River Cruises with additional support from public television viewers and contributors to The Masterpiece Trust, created to help ensure the series' future.
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