Canning house is the name given to one of the magnificent white buildings situated in London’s stately Belgrave Square. Behind the large windows, through which one can discern majestic ceilings with sumptuous chandeliers, the Hispanic spirit of the city lies hidden. The library, which houses one of the best collections of Spanish literature in London, along with the nearby Instituto Cervantes (Cervantes Institute), is only one of the many services offered by the organisation. One could actually conclude that the true cultural ambassadors of the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries can be found in this very corner of Belgrave Square.
On the 27th March 2006, we were once again delighted to attend another of Canning House’s well organised events – the presentation of Autumn Landscape, written by the popular Cuban detective fiction writer, Leonardo Padura Fuentes. Padura is remarkable for his modesty, his genuine kindness and his approachability. After a few minutes of pleasant conversation with him, there is the feeling that one could almost be facing Mario Conde, the detective and protagonist of Padura’s short stories. From Padura’s inkwell there has arisen a collection of short detective stories, unique within their genre. Not only do these stories entertain the reader with the uncertainties surrounding the mystery of their unsolved crimes which must be unravelled through Conde’s investigations, but they also provide a representation of Cuba as experienced by the author; of Havana’s society, with all its problems and prejudices. Padura admits writing specifically for the Cubans but not in an insular manner; instead he deals with themes that, although mainly based in Cuba, can easily be adapted to different countries and this has facilitated the translation of his works into more than ten languages. Some of his stories include: Adiós, Hemingway (Goodbye, Hemingway), Paisaje de otoño (Havana Black: Autumn Landscape), Máscaras (Masks), Vientos de Cuaresma (The Winds of Lent).
Padura has also published, with great success, various essays which are used in the most prestigious universities to complement the study of Latin American Politics: Con la espada y con la pluma: Comentarios del Inca Garcilaso (With the sword and the pen: Comments from the Incan Garcilaso”), Un camino de medio siglo: Carpentier y la narrativa de lo real maravilloso (A journey of half a century: Carpentier and the narrative of magic realism) and La cultura y la revolución cubana. Conversaciones en La Habana (Cuban culture and revolution. Conversations in Havana) are just a few.
The writer was born and lives in Cuba. When I ask him why he has decided to stay in Cuba when many other artists and intellectuals left a long time ago, he regards me thoughtfully and says, “Today we wanted to go for a walk and we went to the British Museum, which is very close to our hotel. We were discussing Guillermo Cabrera Infante and his feelings about Cuba. We decided that it is the small things, including climate and temperature, that are important. They are a part of you; you belong to a culture and that’s it. Here, for example, nobody cares about baseball; I’m a talkative person and here nobody talks to you at the bus stop. The Cuban world, my culture – are fundamental to me as a source of inspiration.” He continues, “I have visited many places: Germany, Nuremberg, Tuscany…beautiful! But I know that I can not live in any of them” and, he assures me, “human relationships are more important than the individual, even something as simple as a good coffee becomes important. All these things revolve around a decision. The house in which I now live was also my father’s home, and before him, it was my grandfather’s. I was born in that house. It all has to do with the fact that politics does not hinder the idyllic relationship that I have with my country.”
Padura admits, however, to having a painful relationship with the subject of exile. “Practically all my paternal family lives abroad”, he tells me, “my younger brother and lots of friends. It’s an intense, intimate and painful relationship”. He insists that for him it is important that everyone respects the decisions made by others and that he continues to live in Cuba “because I want to and because I feel like it!”. Padura believes that it is fundamental for everyone to have the right not to be judged by others regarding their own decisions.
Padura complains about London weather – how could he not! “In Cuba,” he explains, “it is always about 26 or 27 degrees”. He comments on the coldness of character that he observes in the people who rush past him through the streets of London and he cannot help comparing everything with his Havana. The Havana of his books is sometimes red: “Havana Red”, which is the English title of his novel Máscaras (Masks), other times black: “Havana Black” that belongs to his Paisaje de Otoño (Autumn Landscape). However, Padura always writes about Havana with knowledge and fluency; he knows what he is talking about and is totally aware of the great progress that his country has made. “I am lucky to have had all my books published without having a single word censored,” he assures me, “in the seventies or eighties, they wouldn’t have been published. The crisis of the nineties had to come about to arrive at this different outlook.”
His books are very critical, but Padura says that there are many factors that have contributed to this. He explains that after the repression which preceded the nineties, the attitude of the Cuban cultural authorities has been more intelligent and has changed a great deal. Last year four of Padura’s novels were published in Cuba as a present for his fiftieth birthday. It is at this moment that Padura reminds me that even though there is no relationship between the number of copies sold in his country and the money obtained from sales, the most important thing is that the books sell. They are books which have been written with the Cuban reader in mind; it is only through their unforeseen success in Spain that they have come to be published in other countries. “Now my books are published first in Spain for contractual reasons and as they can’t be imported to Cuba (fourteen euros, the price of a copy in Spain, is what a Cuban might earn in a month) they have to make different editions. I wish I had an economic solution!,” he jokes.