Literary Hub

Leon Padura on a Lost Generation of Cubans, and the Arrogance of Trump

old havana

At this point, it’s fair to wonder whether relations between the US and Cuba will ever really be “normal.” Only a hundred miles separate the two countries, but a wide gulf of history and grievance make that distance seem further. In December 2014, President Obama began a series of reforms aimed at easing travel and trade between the two nations. The move was seen by many as long overdue and the only reasonable course forward, though some in the Florida exile community and conservative political circles argued that the new measures would somehow bolster the Castro regime. Now, with a trip to Miami and a photo-op alongside his once belittled adversary, Marco Rubio, President Trump recently announced plans to rollback the Obama-era reforms. While a few special interests will be preserved, the hope of opening relations seems to be dashed, at least for now.

On learning the news, I reached out to Leonardo Padura, the Cuban author who has mastered and transcended the crime fiction genre, and who, more than any politician in Havana or Miami, has earned the right to speak about life on the island and the uncertain future Cubans now face.

Padura was born in the outskirts of Havana and lives there still. For decades, he has been among Cuba’s most celebrated literary voices. His reputation, and his passion for the Cuban people, allow him a degree of liberty in portraying the ambiguities and underbelly of island life. Heretics, his most recent novel to be released in the US, is a portrait of Jewish life in Havana and an exploration of the intricacies of national identity. It’s also a detective novel, a story about murder, a stolen painting, and the rum-soaked musings of Padura’s most famous creation, Mario Conde, the bookish, romantic detective. Conde, long a favorite among crime fiction aficionados in Latin America and Europe, is now enjoying a surge in the US, too, thanks to the new Netflix series, Four Seasons in Havana, based on Padura’s work. Padura adapted the show along with his wife, the screenwriter Lucia López Coll, and saw to it filming was done in Havana.

Heretics and Four Seasons in Havana are part of a cultural exchange that may prove elusive if the curtain between Cuba and the US is drawn again. So I took the opportunity to ask Padura about the Trump regime, the view from Havana, prospects for the future, and why the world keeps betraying refugees.

Dwyer Murphy: (A few weeks back) President Trump announced he’s effectively closing off relations between the US and Cuba once again. Can you tell me a little about the view from Cuba? It must be hard to stay open-minded in the face of so much cynicism.

Leon Padura: It’s not a question of cynicism so much as stupidity, the lack of any real political sense. Because if there’s anything that can destabilize Cuban society and even the Cuban political system, it’s a dynamic relationship with the United States. But Trump, in his arrogance and with the debts he owes to certain politicians opposed to relations with Cuba, is intent on doing the opposite, on closing what could be opened and toughening his rhetoric. From Cuba that will provoke a predictable response, causing it to close off to everything the United States government says, raise the flags like a city under siege, harden its positions and not change what could be changed… It’s a vicious circle, a nightmare from which it seems we Cubans will never wake.

The hostile attitude merely plays into the hands of the extremists and fundamentalists, who are having a field day everywhere, and far from changing anything will only reinforce our stagnant positions. I don’t know where you stand on this—although I can guess from your questions—but I don’t see how anyone can fail to comprehend that smooth relations between the United States and Cuba would be the better policy, at least if the goal really is to change things on the island.

DM: Had life in Cuba changed much over the last two years, since the thaw with the US began?  

LP: Actually there have been no great changes, and very few as a result of the new political situation with the United States. I think the biggest obstacle has been the continuation of the embargo, which has held back, or forestalled altogether, new relations in all things pertaining to the economy, from business deals and investments to contracts for baseball players. It’s true that more American “visitors” are coming to Cuba (not tourists, who aren’t permitted under the embargo), and that means an additional influx of money, but it isn’t much yet, and it tends to stay concentrated in certain social and economic sectors related to tourism, among them a significant portion of Cuba’s small-business owners. It’s also true that the Cuban government has turned down other possibilities, such as American artists and producers coming to work on the island, which has been practically ruled out, or opening up access to the Internet. I think there ought to be more openness on both sides, but realistically, with the restrictions of the embargo, there’s little more we can do than maintain embassies in our respective capitals.

DM: For many Americans, your work is one of the few windows into everyday life in Cuba. Are there aspects of Cuban society that you feel are unappreciated by outsiders, that you feel a responsibility or inclination to capture in your books?

LP: All realities have their peculiarities and singularities that are hard to understand for those who don’t live them day by day, who don’t belong to that culture or time period. Many people in the world, for example, couldn’t understand how it was possible for Donald Trump to become president of the United States, and rivers of ink have flowed in trying to explain that election.

With Cuba, a country that’s small but at the same time closely watched, the situation is even more complicated because we are politically, economically and socially so peculiar. That entails a challenge for the artist who works with the materia prima of our peculiarly Cuban reality. The novel, for instance, is not intended to explain reality. It is enough to show it, to connote rather than denote, as Hemingway called for with his iceberg technique. But when showing something that others won’t understand for lack of information, or may misunderstand because the information they do have is manipulated, a novelist feels the temptation to be a little more explicit, and that’s very dangerous because it can lead you into the terrain of journalism, the essay or, even worse, Costumbrismo.

I’m interested in writing about Cuba precisely because it is a peculiar country—and therefore a highly “novelistic” one—and because it’s the reality I live and know. And no doubt that does imply a responsibility, all the more so when you consider that as a writer you have the chance to reach audiences outside your own country. The solution, then, is both very simple and very complex: you attempt to avoid parochialism and, by working from an inner reality, to tap in to the universal. That is my aim, and I try to live up to it whenever I write… And I hope I have.

DM: Your detective, Mario Conde, is part of a lost generation in Cuba. You’re more or less his contemporary. Where does that generation fit into what’s happening now?

LP: Conde is absolutely my contemporary. He’s an almost model representative of my generation, and I am an entirely generational writer. All my novels contain characters of my generation confronting the challenges of my generation: the hopes and frustrations, the dreams and disillusionment that have been our lot.

My generation has been very peculiar among the Cuban peculiarities I spoke of earlier. Ever since we can remember, we’ve lived in a socialist country headed by a Castro—Fidel for forty years and Raúl for the last ten. We’ve lived in a country where the big decisions have been handed down to us as orders or laws, and our part has been to obey whether we like it or not. Or emigrate and be frustrated. Now they’re even telling us that citizens 60 years of age or older will no longer be allowed to hold high office in the country. That is to say, our part is to keep obeying, or I don’t know what. But I should also say that ours was a generation that dreamed of the future. We thought it would come, that we would have a future. But it all fell apart in a moment, and the dreams vanished or were scaled back to a reality where the future still hasn’t arrived, and now we know, given our age, that for us it never will.

All this may sound pessimistic, but I am more pessimistic of late. After all, today in Cuba, power is still exercised vertically, not only in big political or economic questions, but even when it comes to deciding whether a Cuban writer’s book will circulate, or whether a Cuban director’s film will be shown.

DM: At the center of your novel, Heretics, is a historical incident: the passage of the MS St. Louis in 1939, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees who were turned away by authorities in Cuba, the US and Canada. It’s a sin that binds the Americas, in a way. And it seems sadly resonant now, with the refugee crises playing out around the world. Is this the kind of historical crime that’s destined to be repeated again and again, in different forms, in different places?

LP: History has the very bad habit of constantly repeating itself. If you account for particularities of time and place, better or worse methods (generally worse) and new justifications, you see that there are cycles and processes that repeat themselves and challenges that are painfully eternal. With the “holy war” unfolding right now, we might say we’re back in the Middle Ages; even the discourse is similar, on both sides. And what to say about the US government’s regression to its former rhetoric towards Cuba, and the Cuban government’s predictable response? Here, it ought to be said, the fault lies not only with history. It’s also the fault of men who make history but don’t read it, or if they do, don’t learn anything from it. It’s terrible… There are times when I have difficulty persuading myself that history is an upward spiral.

As for the current refugee crisis, of course it’s all too reminiscent of the crisis of less than a century ago, in the years before World War II, just as the situation in the Balkans at the end of the 20th century was a copy of the situation at the beginning of the 20th century. And there you have it, the curse of history, which is above all the fruit of arrogance, ambition and human stupidity.

DM: In Heretics, Havana is depicted as a diverse, polyphonic city. Did writing about Daniel Kaminsky and the Jewish community allow you to explore a part of the city you hadn’t been able to before?

LP: Havana has always been a cosmopolitan city, open to the world, facing the sea: that was and in a sense continues to be its character. In my times of greatest activity as a journalist I wrote a lot about that Havana, telling the stories of Chinese immigration and the rise of Havana’s Barrio Chino, of the Catalonian presence in the city and its cultural and commercial importance, of the hordes of French prostitutes and pimps who dominated the sex trade in the early 20th century: of the good and bad sides of that cosmopolitan character.

Within that kaleidoscope, the world of Havana’s Jews, which had its heyday from the 1910s to the 1950s, had always appealed to me, but I’d never delved into it very deeply. That Jewish community, itself highly diverse, as I say in the novel—it grafted itself into Havana’s diversity, adding another layer to the city’s cosmopolitanism, its cultural and ethnic mix. That’s something we all know in Cuba, but we weren’t talking about it much, and in fact it had almost been forgotten. One of the functions of a writer, though, is to preserve memory, and for me it’s an obsession. So by tracing the life of one Jew in particular, I tried to draw a portrait of that community and a possible map of Havana in the mid-20th century, when my city was a hotbed of social and economic contradictions, of migrations and urban and cultural expansions—growth in the broadest sense of the term.

DM: Can you tell me a bit about adapting Cuatro estaciones en La Habana for TV? I’m especially curious about filming in Havana, and how you managed to give the series such an intimate, evocative atmosphere. There was a real sense of the city’s neighborhoods, which I had never seen on film before.

LP: I think the series has a high level in its genre and for its possibilities. That it was later distributed throughout Latin and North America by Netflix and reached such a large audience was an added benefit we didn’t expect… The work of adapting it, which my wife, Lucía López Coll, and I did ourselves, was as arduous, merciless and complicated a journey as is every process of bringing literature to the screen, especially if you’re trying to preserve the essence of the book in the film and not veer off course. That was what we set out to do with the material and, by extension, with the task of developing the stories in their natural context, the city of Havana. Luckily the Spanish producers were given authorization to film in Cuba (an authorization denied to the Canadian producers who want to do another version of my novels), and we gave the Spanish director, Félix Viscarret, all the guidance we could on recreating Havana on film.

From there he performed a very creative reading of the city, and the cinematographer was able to make that reading his own, such that the final result is a revelation. Havana is captured in its splendors and miseries, its barrios and boulevards, but above all in something much more intimate: its language, its personalities, its life in action. The life you see on screen is, I can assure you, very close to the real life I know and live as a Havanan.

DM: Crime fiction is often grouped by location: Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia. Do you think there’s a growing tradition of Caribbean noir, something that unites the stories coming out of Cuba, Miami, Colombia?

LP: No, I don’t think we can speak yet of a Caribbean noir. I remember when we began presenting the Cuatro estaciones series, the director, Félix Viscarret, used to say we were patenting Caribbean noir, because that type of cinema made from an insider perspective—distinct from the perspective in Our Man in Havana, for example, to name a classic—practically did not exist. As far as crime or noir fiction is concerned, I know there are authors who have written and published novels in Puerto Rico, Miami and the Colombian Caribbean, and of course there are Cuban authors, but I don’t think they form a coherent and visible body, neither in artistic nor even in commercial terms. I would like it if the Caribbean did have a stronger presence in the genre, not merely from the more literary angle that I take but using all the diverse possibilities that this truly generous literary mode has to offer, a mode that allows you to do anything as long as you have the ability to do it.

Among the Cubans, who are of course the writers I know best, authors such as Lorenzo Lunar and Amir Valle have taken the harder approach, the underworld-and-corruption approach, while in Miami Uva de Aragón comes closer to the more literary manner in which I work. But it’s hardly what you would call a movement, unfortunately.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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