In The Spotlight: Leonardo Padura’s Havana Red*

>In The Spotlight: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last RitualsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels and series are at least as much literary fiction as they are crime and mystery fiction. In those cases, we don’t just read the story of a crime and its investigation. We also get a close look at life in a certain place among certain people. Many literary crime novels also explore themes, sometimes at greater length and in more depth than you might see in a ‘purely’ (Is there such a thing?) crime novel. Such a series is Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde series, so let’s turn the spotlight on one of those novels today. Let’s focus on Havana Red, the third novel in this Havana Quartet.

Mario Conde is a Havana police detective who’s been ‘sidelined’ to the Information Bureau at Police Headquarters. The official reason is that Internal Affairs is investigating an incident in which he had a very public dust-up with Lieutenant Fabricio. There are hints that more is at stake than that.

During the full heat of the summer of 1989, Conde’s ‘exile’ is temporarily ended when his boss, Major Antonio Rangel, assigns him to a new case. The body of a man dressed in a woman’s red dress has been found in Havana Park. At first, it seems like a not-very-surprising hate crime against a transvestite. But there’s more to this case than that. For one thing, the victim turns out to be Alexis Arayán, son of powerful and well-connected diplomat Faustino Arayán. So the investigation will have to be quiet and careful, and the family will need to be protected from publicity. For another thing, it’s not immediately clear whether this is a murder or a suicide.

If it is a suicide, it wouldn’t be shocking. Some evidence suggests that the victim was contemplating taking his own life. And in Havana at that time, being homosexual, especially in such an obvious way, carries terrible social consequences. Arayán wouldn’t be the first to succumb to the urge to give up on life.

Conde begins by talking to those closest to the victim: his family members and friends. From them he gradually develops a portrait of the dead man. He also narrows down possible leads as to how and why he died. One possibility, of course, is that it was the hate crime it seems on the surface. Another is that it is connected to the Catholic Feast of the Transformation, which took place on the day of his death. There’s also the connections that Arayán had with the Havana arts community, in particular the Centre for Cultural Heritage. There are avenues there to be explored, too.

In the meantime, the internal investigation at the police department has widened in scope; several people are now in the proverbial crosshairs. So Conde has to deal with that disruption as well as with the murder investigation. And there’s a very real chance that he could be specifically targeted. That could have dire consequences for him. In the end, though, he gets to the truth about Alexis Arayán’s murder.

As I mentioned, this is as much a literary novel as anything else. In it, Padura explores several themes. One of them is of course bigotry and homophobia, and their impact on people. Conde himself confronts and struggles with his own prejudice as the story goes on; it isn’t always a winning battle for him, but he does at least admit his bias. There’s also bias on a larger scale, as we learn about the Cuban government’s views of homosexuals, at least during that era.

Another theme is arguably hypocrisy. At the same time as homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric (and worse) are common, there are plenty of people who have secret gay relationships. At the same time as people are urged to

‘‘…purify myself by contact with the working class,’’

and forgo luxury, those in power have access to fine houses, the best food, wine and cigars, and so on. So there is real cynicism about the government’s aims.

We also get a close look at life in Havana during the late 1980s. With the advent of Soviet policies such as glasnost and perestroika, there is a slightly more open attitude towards capitalism and towards more open communication with the US and its allies. Still, the Cuban government remains firmly Communist and firmly in control of the press, the arts and so on. All of this impacts daily life in Cuba. It’s a place where things like coffee are rationed, and where housing is hard to find unless you happen to have a lot of money. It’s also a place where saying the wrong thing can still get you in trouble, despite the slight relaxation of government policies.

And yet, it’s not an entirely dismal place. Even in the heat, it’s visually beautiful, and life goes on there and even goes well. There are friendships, birthdays, love affairs, and all the rest of the stuff of life. Despite the sometimes very unpleasant undercurrent, there isn’t a sense of complete bleakness.

Through it all moves Mario Conde, who is, as his creator has said,

‘…a metaphor, not a policeman.’

He represents the ordinary Havana man trying to negotiate his life as the city he remembers from his youth moves towards the end of the 20th Century. The story is told in third person, from his point of view, so we follow along as he lives his life. This perspective allows Padura to hold up a mirror to the society of that time.

The pace of the story is unhurried, as the story focuses on everyday life as much as it does the mystery. Readers who prefer a fast pace and a focus only on the case at hand will notice this. Readers will also notice that the novel isn’t really linear. There are several places where we learn about the past experiences of various characters, including Conde. They are presented as reminiscences, rather than separate chapters or sections. This also impacts the pace of the story, as does the narrative description. Readers who enjoy descriptive detail will be pleased.

Conde arrives at the solution to the mystery through evidence, through interviews, and through his own deductions. And the truth he finds is reflective of the society in which he lives. So is the character of the sleuth who discovers it.

Havana Red is a literary journey through Havana in the hot summer of 1989. That journey’s focus is a case of murder, but it’s by no means limited to that. It features a detective who is quintessentially Cuban, and takes place at a time of great change in the country. But what’s your view? Have you read Havana Red? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 12 October/Tuesday 13 October – Crossbones Yard – Kate Rhodes

Monday 17 October/Tuesday 18 October – Double Indemnity – James M. Cain

Monday 24 October/Tuesday 25 October – Long Way Home – Eva Dolan


Filed under Havana Red, Leonardo Padura

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: Leonardo Padura’s Havana Red*

  1. A great review as always Margot!

  2. Interesting – I’ve never really thought to define ‘literary’ in that way. I do often find myself saying a crime novel is as much lit-fic as crime, but that tends to be a gut feeling based on the style of the language and writing as much as on the content and themes. But looking back at the last few novels I’ve tagged as literary and crime, I see they do conform to your definition – McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’ books, about Glaswegian culture as much as crime, Elaine Proctor’s ‘The Savage Hour’ where the crime is almost incidental to the look at post-Apartheid South African culture, and Tom Vowler’s ‘That Dark Remembered Day’ about the impact of the Falklands War both on the servicemen and the people at home.

    This one sounds good – Cuba is such a fascinating place. I hope it manages to retain the unique things about its identity – the good ones anyway – now that it has opened up again.

    • I hope so, too, FictionFan. And I think you do feel that you learn a lot about it and its culture by reading this series. Certainly you get a sense of the rhythms of life there. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to it as time goes on.

      As to lit-fic, it is, I think, a bit hard to really define sometimes what makes a novel literary fiction (as opposed to, say, a romance/crime fiction/thriller/etc..). It may very well be where the focus is. In most crime novels, as you know, the focus is on the crime and its investigation. But there are crime novels (Peter Temple’s Truth being one) that transcend that, and that move into the area that I call literary fiction, anyway. I’m confess I’ve not read the Proctor, but I agree about McIlvanney (must spotlight one of those novels!). Hmmm…now you’ve really got me thinking, which I always appreciate.

  3. Col

    I haven’t yet read anything from Padura so thanks for the reminder. He’s lurking in the library, I just need to stop ignoring him!

  4. I got a question — do you get the impression that the description[s] of the Cuban landscape, be it urban or rural, is accurate? Does one SEE Cuba in this book? 🙂

  5. I find your definition of literary fiction very interesting. I’ve always been a bit confused as to what actually defines literary fiction. Some say it’s lavish, almost rhythmic prose. Some say it reads more like poetry with no real plot. I suppose the definition is in the eye of the reader. Nonetheless, I really like you’re description because it allows thrillers and mysteries to fall under that category where other stricter guidelines would have prevented it. Well done, Margot.

    • Thanks, Sue. A lot of people do define literary fiction by the writing style, and I can see why. Certainly novels that I consider literary fiction are written in a different, sometimes less terse, style to other kinds of novels. But even that doesn’t always hold. To get to your other point – about thrillers – I think some thrillers can indeed be considered literary fiction.

  6. Another interesting book to add to my TBR list.

  7. A really interesting post – and one that has generated lots of interesting comments – This sounds like a book that covers many issues and although I’m not entirely sure it is one for me, there does sound like a lot to hold the reader’s interest.

    • I like the way you put that, Cleo. This may not be a book/series for everyone, but it is a rich look at life in that place and at that time. In itself that’s interesting.

  8. I have heard to BBC radio editions of these but very curious about the books now – thanks Margot.

    • I have to say, Sergio, I’ve not heard them. I’ll bet they’d be very interesting if done live like that. I’ll be keen to know your thoughts if you read the books.

  9. Kathy D.

    The Cuba of today is nowhere like that described here. First of all, the attitudes coming from the government about gay rights is totally accepting. CENESEX, the National Center on Sexual Education not only educates but promotes equality of all people of all sexual gender preferences and identities. The government even pays for requested treatment for transgender people. CENESEX’s leader is Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul Castro, Cuba’s president and Vilma Espin, founder of the Federation of Cuban Women, to which millions of women belong. Women are in large numbers in many professions.
    Many people I know have visited, including relatives, on vacations and educational trips. They all loved being there, meeting people, hearing/seeing people playing music in the streets, touring, etc.
    Let’s not forget that people there get free health care, whatever they need and free education. Childcare is a legal right and it’s provided. Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and the Caribbean; it’s lower than that in the U.S. because of free and available pre-natal care. The country has also developed leading breast cancer treatments.
    Cuba has thousands of medical professionals volunteering in Africa andLatin America. The country sent 1200 health care workers to Haiti to combat cholera, and was praised by the head of the World Health Organization for being the first country to offer doctors to go to Africa to treat Ebola.
    Lack of certain commodities is due in large part to the U.S. blockade.
    Hopefully, the negotiations will help to lessen that.
    I’d like to read Padura’s works as he’s a good writer, but I think I would find his perspective to be a downer and contrary to current developments.

    • I’m glad you’ve provided updated information, Kathy. It just goes to show that a lot of progress has been made on a lot of issues since the late 1980s. If you read Padura, I’ll be interested in knowing what you think of it.

  10. This sounds atmospheric and fascinating Margot, and I like a literary thriller…

    • ‘Atmospheric’ is a good word for it, Moira. It’s gritty in some places, and certainly not a light story. But you do get a real look at the Cuba of the late 1980s, I thought.

  11. Almost lost it when I got to the victim being a transvestite in a red dress. Having recently read Ed Gorman’s The Marilyn Tapes, which soft-shoes around some of the J. Edgar Hoover myths, I felt compelled to read further, just to make sure this wasn’t a Cold War-era left-wing lit shuffle. Glad it isn’t, and now I’m intrigued. Thanks for introducing a new author.

    • No, this one has nothing to do with the Gorman book or Hoover, Matt. It is a fascinating look at life in Cuba in the late ’80’s among other things. If you read it, I hope you’ll like it.

  12. tracybham

    I was just recently reading about this series at José Ignacio’s blog and commenting that I have this book and I thought it was the first in the series. It isn’t but he said it would be fine to start here and continue on if I like the series. I think I will (like it).

    • He’s right, Tracy. There’s enough information to catch you up on the series no matter where you start. And I think Padura does a fine job of combining literary work with crime fiction. If you enjoy that sort of mix, I’m guessing (hoping!) you’ll like this one.

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