In relation to the question of Cuba’s governing power, Padura explains: “The government tries to make people forget. The repression began in the sixties, it was brutal in the seventies but now the situation has changed; people tend to forget”. We talk about the revolution and we contrast it with Masonry; Padura reminds me that his book La novela de mi vida (The story of my life) deals with the subject. He says, “my father became a Mason in 1949, a very fervent Mason. Although it’s a movement surrounded by a lot of secrecy, it is publicly known that it has a fraternal spirit; everyone is equal”. I suggest that this might recall the philosophy of the
revolution. “The revolution arrives and envelops the whole country; it’s like an overflowing river”, he replies. “Some feel extremely attracted by it. But in the nineties there was a very important change in the political arena. Although Fidel Castro stayed in power, there was a change in mentality; an opening up to the cultural, literary and theatrical world”. As Padura himself remarks, an example of this new opening was the film Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) which openly dealt with the issue of homosexuality, a theme also explored in Máscaras (Masks). However, as Padura goes on to say, “a certain amount of liberty was gained but there still exists a return to dogma”.
In the privacy of the first floor room of Canning House, with its imposing windows, the voice of the writer sounds decisive and tranquil. The reading of an extract from Havana Black brings us the voice of a Mario Conde who sounds quite distinct from the character I had mentally depicted when reading the story myself. With Padura’s voice, the melodious Caribbean cadence of his words draws us closer to the fictional detective, towards his real self, his insecurities and his presentiments. I feel as if I am facing a Cuban Colombo (American television detective), without the raincoat but with a pure and pensive stare. Padura stresses his words of thanks to the organisers and to Peter Bush, the translator of the book, who will read the extracts in English.
“Peter’s work is really well done and respectful to the original”, says Padura, “In this case it is a very important aspect because often the translator remains an anonymous entity who is hardly recognised and that seems very unfair to me.” Padura explains that translating does not mean simply transcribing words from one text to another but, crucially, transmitting the spirit of a work. Few authors openly recognise their relationship with the translator, with the other writer of their novels whose ability to comprehend must, in fact, be even greater than that of the author himself and the relationship with the text perhaps even more intense.
The novel is about the investigations into the death of Miguel Forcade Mier. He is a Cuban, resident in Miami, who returns to Cuba. Painstakingly and with a patience that already eludes most inhabitants of cities like this, Padura explains the novel’s foundations and situates the audience in the fictional scene. He explains how it is always the detective plot which develops around the main roles of his characters. In this particular case the detective’s attention is drawn towards the works of art in the room, which do not appear to be relevant to the case but give the story a realism that is often absent in works of this genre. The story of Conde is, in fact, the story of an entire generation. Conde is, according to his author, a metaphor for his generation, for the disappointments people suffered in terms of friendship and disenchantment. “In the excerpt the metaphorical nature is explained; can you imagine a detective who suffers doubts about whether a work is by Cezanne or Matisse? Mario Conde is, to a certain extent, an intermediary between literature and realism. He is a character who hardly knows anything about criminal investigation. When he feels that he is close to reality he experiences a heartfelt pain. Most importantly, he represents a part of my generation. This isn’t the only interpretation possible, it is simply my view”.
The shared feeling of disenchantment of which the author speaks is reflected in the detective’s own outlook. Mario Conde suffers at the sight of dilapidating buildings and in some respects he has fundamentalist beliefs. He highly esteems the ideals of fidelity and friendship. The writer confesses that he too tries to cultivate such virtues, as far as possible, in his own behaviour. Conde is saturated with the personality of his creator. In the extract that is read to us, Conde’s humanity is emphasised when, instead of focusing upon Gerardo Gómez de la Peña’s analysis of the cadaver, he imagines that he would also like to wear a pair of shoes like those of the dead body. These shoes are much more real than the book’s plot; they are brown, soft and Italian. (I peer in front of me, under the table where the writer and translator are seated and I wonder whether Peter Bush’s brown shoes are also Italian). Once again Conde has magnetised me with his thoughts, with his hypotheses which are sometimes too terrestrial and at the same time too philosophical. We are once more introduced to the detective, the frustrated writer who, by means of criminal investigations, questions the eternal existential doubts: “Who are we?”; “where do we come from?”; “what do we desire?”
“My motivation behind this novel and the Conde series was the desire to write detective novels which would be, above all, of a social character.” He continues, “something I felt I had to do was to leave behind a mark of an historical moment that we lived through in Cuba and, more specifically, the feeling of disillusionment when the ideal world which they spoke of began to disappear and we heard rumours that the Soviet Union was not the country we had been taught about. This is why I think these are detective and social novels, but they are also sad.” This sadness is particularly focused upon the character of Flaco Carlos (“Skinny Carlos”), an ex-combatant from the Angolan war. Of this war, Padura comments, “there is no syndrome similar to that of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, one does not have the same relationship with a war if one is on the winning or losing side”. With pride Padura tells us that Cuban intervention maintained Angola’s independence as well as helped to change the political map of southern Africa. Scars, however, both physical (like those of Carlos) and psychological, will always remain with those who lived through the conflict. “There remained individual traumas”, he laments, “for me it was very difficult; there was violence, fear; I discovered the feeling of fear while in Angola”.
The writer’s warm voice continues to pour forth from his place at the table, in front of the great English fireplace embossed with cherubs and demons. (It occurs to me that Conde would ponder the source of the marble). Peter Bush’s fluent reading of the English translation with a flawless accent, only interrupted from time to time with Hispanic names, could set the scene in any New York borough, with a black and white setting just like the detective films of the fifties. Padura’s narrative, however, goes much further than this, as he himself has stated; it contains more than the mystery and uneasiness that is characteristic of the detective novel. From the pages of the novel, Cuban society leaps out at the reader: the omnipresent heat, the island’s gentle climate, the sweat on the detective’s shirt that can almost be felt under one’s own armpits, until one suddenly finds oneself at a bus stop in this cold, European city, where, as the author aptly remarks, nobody speaks to you. The economy and politics are always sustaining the plot and tempering its mystery with the reality of those Italian shoes so coveted by Conde. While listening in silence, I cannot help but observe the details of my surroundings and see them through the eyes of the inspector, who would look at everything inquisitively, from the dark magnificence of the candelabras and the golden curtains, to the decadence of the worn-out corners of the rug. I weigh up the value of everything I see and, infected with that detective magic, I feel suspicious of everyone and everything. The names of Padura’s characters are chosen deliberately. Names such as Conde (Count) or Marqués (Marquis), which appear aristocratic, are simply common Spanish surnames, yet Padura plays upon their
double significance and with the common dealings of the protagonists. Padura explains that the main character was originally called Mario Lamar and that he was the protagonist of the initial stories. When considering the reuse of the character for other works, he observed that the surname ‘Lamar’ shared the ending of Spanish -AR verbs, which was too discordant, and so he decided to change the name. Interestingly, Mario Conde is also the name of the well known Spanish director of Banesto [Spanish Bank], who was arrested following a huge embezzlement scandal which became infamous among the Spanish press and sensationalist magazines. Of course, Padura makes clear that he did not even know of this real-life Conde when he created his fictional character of the same name.
One of Padura’s most popular books is Adios, Hemingway. “Hemingway was my first great literary influence,” says Padura, “he deceived me twice: the first time he made me believe that to write like him was easy; the second time he made me believe that a writer’s lifestyle was that much fun”.
“I had, not the desire…how shall I put it?”, he continues, pensively. “There was a motivation which would sometimes lead me to write about him, but not in the form of an essay, in the manner in which one constructs a biography. I wanted to write about a more real-life Hemingway, far from the stage, when he faces his two greatest fears: the inability to write and death”, he explains, while also mentioning the egomania of the great American. Padura has already forgiven Hemingway for these two deceptions but not, however, for the discovery that he betrayed some of his best friends. It is this disillusionment which led him to continue “brewing”, as he says, the novel. He does not criticise Hemingway but rather tries to understand his feelings, above all in the last moments of his life.
One of the characteristics of Padura’s work is its intertextuality; in his works we see reflected the names of writers who have impressed him in some way, as well as quotations from and allusions to their works. This is nothing akin to plagiarism and is, on the contrary, a sort of personal homage to those who have had an impact on him. Padura believes that writers feed off each other, that everything has already been written and that writing is about form, the order of the phrases and words and the unique style that each person brings to their own work. I cannot help making the connection, but the detective reminds me a little of the superintendent Flores, the protagonist of Misterio de la cripta embrujada [Mystery of the haunted crypt] by Eduardo Mendoza. Rather like Conde, Flores also enjoys football. The Spanish work, like the Cuban work, contains social analysis and criticism reflecting, in this case, Spanish society during the period of transition to democracy. Mendoza’s work also shares with Padura’s writing a certain melancholy and a worldliness that is almost painful.
Padura’s technique lies in forgetting the plot: “I never know in advance who the murderer will be; each novel is part of the process of learning how to write. I cannot say that I have a system; each novel is better or worse. I am a writer who, after having the ideas and researching them, begins to look for forms”.
I have not yet discovered who is to blame for the mystery which currently occupies me either. I wonder whether it is actually Padura who is the frustrated detective rather than, as he suggests, Conde who is the writer desperate to find the inspiration to write. They might even be one in the same person; in any case, once you have seen the author close-up, you cannot separate his tranquil image and his inquisitive stare from those of the detective who does not want to be a detective but continues to be one for the reader impatiently awaiting the publication of the next case.
This is, without a doubt, an entertaining read for whoever wants to relax, but intense for someone who seeks to explore the existentialism of the writer. In both cases, intellectual satisfaction is guaranteed: ladies and gentlemen, help yourself to this literary feast hosted by Padura/Conde!