Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Leonardo Padura: Worth Reading (I)

The pull quotes:

Padura on his new novel: "I would like my novel to really generate a debate within Cuba. There will surely be those who disagree with points of view I sustain in the book or even outside of it, but I think that is necessary too." Cubans have lost "the ability for polemics, for real debate," but that is one of the "most important" lessons the country needs to learn. (Cuba Encuentro)

Padura on Obama and the embargo: "Can this president who so loves to lower tensions seriously believe that the same Cuban embargo condemned by nearly the whole world, including countries most critical of the Cuban system, is going to force Havana to make changes rather than provoke its deeper entrenchment? What's more, is this intelligent man not capable of deducing that the lifting of the embargo could be exactly the thing that induces the arrival of changes in Cuba?" (Progreso Weekly)

Between 1996 and 2002, I did graduate work at Tulane University's Stone Center for Latin American Studies where I specialized in Cuban Studies. Having previously done relief work with Cuban balseros, then just released from the now infamous Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, I was eager to learn more about the history and reality of the country these people had fled - a place they continued to love dearly and where they had left behind many of their most cherished memories and gente mas querida.

As I moved tentatively forward on my path to becoming a full-time "Cubanologo," I had the good fortune of meeting and learning about Cuba from a long succession of Cuban professors who were in New Orleans, at Tulane, on academic visas. The long list of these visiting writers, scholars, and artists included Pedro Monreal, Julio Carranza, Wilfredo Cancio Isla (now an intrepid reporter for the Nuevo Herald), Aurelio Alonso, Rafael Hernandez, and the sometime journalist and now full time novelist Leonardo Padura.

Thankfully, that era of people-to-people, academic, and cultural exchanges seems to be slowly resuming under the Obama administration, what with the recent announcements that the Cuban super group Los Van Van will do 70 shows in the U.S. next year while none other than Kool and the Gang will be performing in Cuba in the coming weeks! Can somebody say, "Celebration!"?

All this is a long winded way of introducing Leonardo Padura's work, as well as his latest novel, El hombre que amaba a los perros ("The Man Who Loved Dogs," Tusquets, 2009), to readers of El Yuma.

Padura is best known for his ongoing series of literary detective novels all featuring the Inspector Mario Conde (translated to English as Havana Red, Havana Black, Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Fever, and Adios Hemingway).

In fact, Cuba Encuentro recently reported that Padura's next project will focus once again on Conde, in a plot line that will mix the history of Havana's Polish Jews (I have a friend, neighbor, and former landlord here in New York by the name of Isidoro Ptachewich, proud to be 100% Juban) with that of the city's many "urban tribes" of today. Can't wait for that one!

From the early reviews I've been able to find (here and here), however, it seems that El hombre que amaba a los perros, is more of a political/historical novel in the tradition of Padura's highly acclaimed (if still untranslated) La novela de mi vida (Tusquets, 2002), than a "whodunit?" detective novel - even if the new book is built around one of the most grizzly and notorious political assassinations of the 20th century: that of Leon Trotsky by Ramón Mercader.
  • Trotsky, the Damned: A synopsis of the novel, Tusquets (my translation)
    "The novel's plot follows Ivan, a Cuban veterinarian and aspiring writer who, after the death of his wife in 2004, turns back the clock to a mysterious episode from his youth in 1977 when he met an enigmatic foreign man who would often walk his gorgeous Russian hounds on the Cuban beach. After running into one another a few times, 'The man who loved dogs' began to open up to Ivan, sharing vivid details about his 'friend's' life (that is Mercader's life) and his assassination of Trotsky in Mexico years earlier.

    "The Pandora's Box that this elderly stranger opens for Ivan acquaints him with all the sordid and chilling details of the internecine struggles on the international left long erased from Soviet (and therefore Cuban) history. However, all this new information becomes perhaps too disturbing for Ivan as Mercader's story simultaneously raises questions about the many intellectual, cultural, and political discontents that face contemporary Cuba."
  • Obama, Cuba, and Lost Hopes?: An op-ed from Padura, Progreso Weekly (my re-translation)
    "In April 2009 at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, Obama began his presidency with the promise of a rapprochement towards Latin America. He listened patiently to calls from almost every nation in the Hemisphere to lift the embargo and begin normalizing relations with Cuba. As a result, the hopes of many on the island grew. At that time, the President had already decided to eliminate restrictions that made it difficult for Cuban-Americans to visit their country or send remittances to family members there. Also, academic and cultural contacts were on the path to recuperation and there were talks of a possible reestablishment of direct mail or allowing Cuban access to the North American fiber-optic network.

    "That is why, when on Oct. 28, the U.S. government declared before the world at the General Assembly of the United Nations that it would not alter the embargo and justified it with the same arguments that eight previous U.S. administrations had used since 1962, hopes faded and many asked: Is a man who decides to sustain the policy of isolation over Cuba, the same young, charismatic man who, promising change, rose to power a year ago? Is the man who accepts a policy aimed at defeating a country through hunger, the same person who won a Nobel Peace Prize? Can this president who so loves to lower tensions, seriously believe that the same Cuban embargo condemned by nearly the whole world, including countries most critical of the Cuban system, is going to force Havana to make changes rather than provoke its deeper entrenchment? What's more, is this intelligent man not capable of deducing that the lifting of the embargo could be exactly the thing that induces the arrival of changes in Cuba?"


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