“Walking the Fine Line: Leonardo Padura and ‘Havana Noir’” By William Blick

Padura has had to walk a fine line in his writing as he faces restrictive elements from the Cuban government, while being realistic about the state of his society.

Introduction

Leonardo de la Caridad Padura Fuentes (born October 10, 1955), is one of the most well- known Latin American novelists, and certainly one of Cuba’s most well-known. He is known most famously for his Havana Quartet novels featuring detective Mario Conde. Padura is one of the only writer’s residing in Cuba who has the freedom to be creative and at the same time make critical observations of the Communist government without repercussions. Padura’s Quartet represents the first group of detective novels to openly express disappointment in the Revolution and is a sign of the new, more critical role of detective fiction in Cuba,” according to Braham. In a sense, Padura has had to walk a fine line in his writing as he faces restrictive elements from the government, while being realistic about the state of his society. He also has had to have a certain amount of reverence for the social responsibility placed on him from Cuba and while being pulled into another direction of the world of publishing or the whole of the external, something other than Cuban.

Disillusionment of the 1990s

Padura primarily focuses on the changes that Cuba faced when the Soviet bloc failed and were no longer providing aid to Cuba in the early 1990s. For Padura, there was an element of seedy and noirish elements that made its way into the city, which, in turn, makes its way into his novels. Mario Conde is Padura’s mouthpiece in his crime fiction. Conde is apathetic to a certain degree, cynical to another, and often expresses a certain amount of powerlessness and, in turn, becomes disenchanted by the suffering around him. He appears as a man with a past. He often expresses a sense of regret, guilt, and a longing for the past furthering the theme of disillusionment with the Revolution and the propagandizing oppression that followed.

Preserving History and Telling it Like it Is

Padura often finds Conde wandering through his past life experiences in his mind, in particular when he attended secondary educational institution and then at the University. This manifests itself most in Havana Blue, as he reconnects with a long-lost beauty and tries to find out the truth about a friend that he grew up with and find out the reason for his death. There seems to be a certain nostalgia that Padura is trying to invoke by recalling a “simple” or a well-regarded time by Conde. Padura says in an interview by Henson and Johnson that: “In my ‘detective’ novels as well as in my ‘historical’ novels (because none are either entirely detective or entirely historical), there’s always a play between what’s lived and fading memory, for whatever reason”(12). Padura admittedly states that he is caught between forgetting and not wanting to forget his country’s history. In that sense, Padura’s novels are far from being simple genre escapism, and have striking social relevance (Henson and Johnson 12).

Most of the characters in the Havana Quartet, as to be expected, work in some department of civil service to the government. This adds a whole layer to the novels that make them distinctly Cuban. There is no doubt that many of the characters are restricted by their government, their environment, and their professions, which are actually services to the government such as Ministry of Justice or Ministry of Tourism. However, there is also a demi-monde in Cuba, which Conde navigates in the novels to find out information and investigate crimes. He also partakes of some of the more hidden, subtle pleasures in Havana.

Mario Conde is a distinctly Cuban incarnation. If one were to compare Padura’s Conde with, say, the fictional American Detective Harry Bosch, one would find that Bosch would have no place in Cuban law enforcement. Bosch is also a complex character, but he is to a certain degree anti-authoritarian. He bucks the system as often as he can as many traditional American hero detectives have the luxury to do. Think of cinematic manifestations that buck the system such “Dirty Harry Calahan”, or other literary characters who are at odds with their department heads on police forces. You will not find Conde rebelling against his situation, as he knows it to be a losing battle. So, he acquiesces and does his job to the best of his ability in the face of restrictive elements where even the police are policed.

The Socialist Anti-Hero

Traditionally, Cuban fictional heroes inhabit works of pulpish-propaganda, and are often found fighting against demonized dissidents and dissenters that present a threat to the government, or revolution, and as a result, these “heroes” uphold the ideals of the government. The heroes of the genre were actually a brand of “Socialist detectives heroes.” Padura goes way beyond that because he is given that latitude to do so, which is to create realistic and non-propagandized visions of his reality and the reality for many. The Cuban detective is constantly surrounded in peril-peril for expressing themselves, peril from superior ranking officers, peril from the government, peril from the obvious dangers they incur from uncovering what is hidden and many want to remain hidden. The life of a detective in fiction, is a life of risk and peril, but to bring that to a Cuban setting, the dangers are even more pronounced.

According to Henson and Jonson, “in a novel like Havana Red, of course, there is a definite attempt to recuperate what could have been, from within, the drama of marginalization many Cuban intellectuals were subjected to in the decade of the 1970s for reasons of sexual preference, religious beliefs, etc. . .”(12).

It should be noted that Padura is one of the few authors who can criticize or offer an indictment about of the oppressive governmental stances on issues and persecuted individuals such as homosexuals, and for those who try to exercise freedom of speech, and also members of organized religions. Padura has garnered enough of reputation and has enough respect from the government and the public to be able to speak about such things, which is quite anomalous.

Havana Noir and the Cuban Demi-monde

Padura can take responsibility for creating the genre of “Havana Noir.” In his novels, Conde moves through the underworld and black markets of speak-easies, clandestine groups, illegal restaurants. Its inhabitants appear as a desperate group, who are tragically trying to survive in a harsh environment. They smoke, drink rum, have sex, and commit dubious acts of what officials of the state might regard as treason. Conde, in the novels, knows the “in- and-outs” of Havana. He is a protagonist who knows how to get what he wants. He is tough-minded, but exercises caution and a degree of empathy, despite a staunch façade of apathy.

Padura emphasizes the cultural aspects of Havana, revealing its music, cuisine, and overall sights and sounds that move with the rhythm of the Cuban spirit of resilience Yet, one cannot help but feel the sense of dread or impending doom, that appears quite inevitable in the Havana Quartet.

What can be noted about Padura’s novels, additionally, is that, “On the one hand, they often are set in a squalid and crumbling Havana, where corruption and crime thrive despite the efforts of Padura’s main protagonist, Mario Conde, a police detective who gives up his profession to become a bookseller, and his friends” (Birkenmaier 13). It is a world of decay and precarious lives on the lower fringes of society. Yet, On the other hand, noticeable in Padura’s more than 14 recent novels, many of which are set in the past, and where Padura aims to render present historical episodes that put Cuba in relation to the world at large  (Birkenmaier 13). The fine line between the portrayal  of decay and seedy elements in the novel, and the desire to express harsh realities about Cuban life is something that Padura grapples with in all of his novels. Padura has a peculiar pride in preservation of history, and at the same time he conveys disillusionment that many Cubans have found particularly in this “special period” in the early 1990s.

Detecting Social Ills

“Clearly, Padura has struck a tone in his novels that borrows from other well-known Cuban writers yet is also attuned to global book market trends, where detective fiction and historical novels in particular have been popular for a number of years” (Birkenmaier 13). Therefore, it would seem that Padura uses the detective novel as a conduit to explore the history and life in Havana, particularly during the 1990s after the fall of the Communist Bloc, wherein, their economy was crippled. Just as many detectives through time beginning with Poe and moving all the way up to current historical fiction such as Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, the detective moves through different settings uncovering harsh realities and illuminating perspectives on many social ills that have exist or still exist today.

Braham shows us the genre of neopoliciaco, which is a genre that is: “loosely based on the hard-boiled genre: its detectives are vigilantes who expose themselves to the viciousness and corruption of society with a paradoxical mix of cynicism and idealism.” Conde demonstrates his mixture of cynicism and idealism and that is ultimately, what makes Padura’s character and, ultimately, the novels, successful. The comprometido as opposed to neopoliciaco the focuses on corruption and social criticism, yet the tool of that steers the fiction into these directions is Conde. For Conde, who attempts to be socially conscientious, is simply thwarted by the government, dubious characters with dubious morality and political agendas, and a general misanthropy that often creeps in despite the element of idealism.

Resisting the Confines of “Genre”

Padura is another rare author who fits into a specific genre, but ends up resisting the confines of the genre. His work has social resonance, despite the trappings of a detective novel. Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet took the detective novels to a high art. Some critics tend to paint genre fiction such as mystery, sci fi, etc, with the same brush of dismissal, but oft times they are proved wrong by the skillful artisans and practitioners of these genres. Padura happens to be of this type.

In direct contrast to some more contemporary transgressive world crime fiction authors such as the Scandinavian noir of Steig Laarson or Jo Nesbo, Padura’s novels may seem tame. Padura is more poetic and subtle, then he is visceral and graphic. Most of the violence is implied or after the fact. Padura is more interested in presenting social and political woes, and in character studies, than he is in the crimes themselves throughout his novels.

Mexican author, critic, journalist, and social activist Carlos Monsivais has asserted that “Latin America does not have detective fiction because Latin Americans have no faith in justice” (Simpson 21).

Although Monsivais astutely underscores a fundamental, disconnect between the central premise of classic detective fiction and the particular conditions of law and order in many Latin American societies, his asseveration is also patently false: numerous examples of detective fiction can be found throughout the hemisphere that specifically engage with the peculiarities of the Latin American context (Simpson 22).

The Latin American Detective Novel

Latin American crime fiction contains a number of elements that make it unique and distinctly different from European and North American-style noir or detective novels. There is a distinctly significant element of political influences, mainly injustices, that Monsivais expressed, that shape the narratives. Philip Marlowe navigates his way through Los Angeles. The emphasis is on the disparity of wealth and the shadow of Hollywood, and those that dwell there such as in The Big Sleep. However, in Latin American crime fiction, the instability of the developing nations almost plays a character in the novel. Characters that inhabit this space of oppressive dictatorship often fall between the cracks of a fragmented society. This not to say that the characters in novels across the world do not fall into the crevices of fragmentation, but the fragmentation is especially noted in Latin American fiction, and easily identifiable in Padura’s novels.

Padura himself, states, “The detective novel is a genre that academia and the canon have mostly ignored. Certainly, it is a genre capable of producing works of the highest caliber and works of negligible artistic quality, just like any other form of writing”(Carlson 57). Padura reaffirms that beneath genre trappings that there is some serious literary groundwork to be laid, and that can be especially fertile soil for the “Detective Novel.” The Detective Fiction must continue to have practitioners who continue to strive for more than escapism. Everywhere there is evidence that “genre” has become a conductor for social conscience.

In an article about Brazilian author Rubem Fonseca’s detective fiction critic and author Ginway explains:

While pure crime fiction generally goes beyond mere detective work to take us into the minds of the criminals themselves, Fonseca’s A grande arte not only blurs the distinctions among conventional genres of detective fiction but also exposes the interaction between the formal, legal economy, and the illegal activities of the economic underworld through its use of classical references and cultural allusions. (712)

Fonseca, like Padura, and Latin American Detective fiction is less about solving crimes, particularly crimes of the individual, but rather crimes against the masses, or conversely since its inception, insubordination and subversion to the collective government. They are not action packed, violent, or transgressive in any way.

Braham asks in his book discussing Latin American crime genres at length:

What are the political and literary discourses governing the production of detective literature in Hispanic cultures, and in Mexico and Cuba in particular? What aesthetic, ideological, and practical obstacles do detective writers confront as they try to adapt the genre to reflect their own circumstances?

These two questions become the crux of Padura’s Havana Quartet and they make up the dichotomy of Padura’s writing. That dichotomy is allegiance to the government and/or allegiance to the non-propaganzed and objective truth. The truth is the depiction of the actual quality of life in Cuba during the period he writes about and up until the present. The obstacles that Padura faces in his writing are glaring. How does one write aesthetically when confined, restricted, and threatened with censorship? The stifling of creativity is a product of the ideological and political aspects of communism. Historically, this has been the case with authors writing under communist regimes, which resulted in the Samizdat movements. The social obstacles Padura faces by being a citizen of Cuba and teetering on the fine line of social criticism is that he could be imprisoned or persecuted.  These reasons are why Padura has achieved something quite miraculous: to dare to be creative under the most confining of circumstances.

The Nature of the Detective

“While Cuban and Mexican detective writers borrow freely from Anglo-European traditions, they refigure the character of delinquency, the nature of victimization, and the process of detection itself,” says Braham. Delinquency, victimization are the process of detection, in other words, it becomes wholly something other in Latin American fiction. These elements are glaring in Padura’s text. Very often Conde’s actions are filled with moral ambiguity, and an element of inevitable delinquency. The nature of the detective is to inquire and probe the status quo. That by its very nature, can be problematic in many developing nations of Latin America. Therefore, unlike traditional detective fiction in English, the majority of detective fiction in Spanish is comprometido, or socially committed (Braham).

Braham discusses the disillusionment and fall of the social detective and the authenticity of Padura’s earnestness where many other have been disingenuous as he says:

While the socialist detective novel was created to disseminate an idealized vision of the new revolutionary society, deteriorating conditions in Cuba eventually led to a reevaluation of the genre. In the 1990s under the “special period” in Cuba, chronic shortages and ideological exhaustion paradoxically created a space for dissidence. The detective novel gained a new function and complexity in the novels of Leonardo Padura Fuentes, which offer a unique chronicle of Cuban life under a decaying regime.

“For both Mexican and Cuban authors, the very marginality of detective literature has allowed it to evolve into a tool of social criticism,” as Braham said. In U.S. or British detective novel, social conscience is secondary, as is justice. The make-up of Western detective fiction is in the character, style, dialogue, and twists and turns of plot, that make up traditional ideas of the genre. Style at times overtakes content. For Latin America, the social criticism cannot help but to inevitably find its way into the works, because for many Latin Americans in developing nations, injustice is ubiquitous.

Padura changes the paradigm of the genre, which had traditionally been fraught with socialist, pro-government propaganda, and has taken the risky adventure of creating a new brand of fiction.

Conclusion

Leonardo de la Caridad Padura Fuentes has created something truly special from genre of Detective Fiction by developing the character of Mario Conde, a distinctly Cuban “hero”. Padura changes the paradigm of the genre, which had traditionally been fraught with socialist, pro-government propaganda, and has taken the risky adventure of creating a new brand of fiction. It is one that is socially conscientious and expresses criticism and sensibility of Latin American disenchantment with dictatorship and oppression. Padura’s mouthpiece, Conde, expresses of what can be described as a malaise and disillusionment about the revolution, and harsh realities of Havana. Padura creates awareness of an unpoliticized reality while telling the Conde’s own stories and confining himself to some of the conventions of the traditional Detective Novel in English. The result is potent concoction of bitter cynicism, nostalgic regret, and the hope for redemption. It is for these reasons that make Leonardo Padura, not only one of the most powerful voices in Detective Fiction and Latin American fiction, but worldwide.

Works Cited

Birkenmaier, Anke. “Leonardo Padura and the ‘New’ Historical Novel.” A Contracorriente (Raleigh, N.C.), vol. 13, no. 1, 2015, p. 13–.

Braham, Persephone. Crimes against the State, Crimes against Persons : Detective Fiction in Cuba and Mexico, University of Minnesota Press, 2004.  

Carlson, Jerry W. “Leonardo Padura, Interviewed by Jerry W. Carlson.” Review (Americas Society), vol. 50, no. 1, Routledge, 2017, pp. 57–65, https://doi.org/10.1080/08905762.2017.1341151

Ginway, M. Elizabeth. “Weaving Webs of Intrigue: Classical Mythology and Analytic Crime Fiction in Rubem Fonseca’s ‘A Grande Arte.’” Hispania, vol. 96, no. 4, American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc, 2013, pp. 712–23, https://doi.org/10.1353/hpn.2013.0129.

Goldman, Dara, E. “Something a Bit Queer: Hunches, Hauntings, and Hangovers in Leonardo Padura’s La Neblina Del Ayer.” Revista Hispánica Moderna (0034-9593), vol. 72, no. 1, June 2019, pp. 61–77

Simpson, Amelia S. Detective Fiction from Latin America. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1990.

Henson, George, and Michelle Johnson. “Writing Cuba from Within: A Conversation with Leonardo Padura.” World Literature Today, vol. 87, no. 3, University of Oklahoma, 2013, pp. 12–17, https://doi.org/10.1353/wlt.2013.0199.


William Blick is Assistant Professor/Library at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York. His work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Pulp Metal Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, and other publications.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s