HAVANA TIMES, Feb 8 — One of the most widely read Cuban writers today is Leonardo Padura. He told HT: “The novel I’m currently writing, which I hope will be titled Herejes (Heretics), is a work that is as ambitious as my previous novel, El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs).
HT: Maybe you could start by telling us of some of the more latent memories of your origins.
Leonardo Padura: A writer cannot do without their memory, or even without the memories of others, whether these are textual or verbal. So this is a subject of infinite aspects. If we circumscribe them within what is “more latent” or by my “origins,” we’re not going to advance very far, yet something is gained. Let’s say that among the obsessions of my memory is an understanding of how and why we’ve been losing certain elements.
In my memory is a neighborhood that was friendly, ugly but clean, family oriented and alive, but there’s no longer any of that. There were the baseball games I saw played in 1960’s, when I wanted a great deal to become a baseball player.
It’s a sport that had a code of honor and a sense of belonging, rivalries and glories that have faded away to the point that it seems today people now bet money on Madrid-Barcelona matches and not on Havana’s Industriales vs. Santiago, which implies a lot has been lost.
In my memory is the discovery of literature by the American novelists of the “lost generation” and the Latinos of the “boom period.” There are the mouthwatering aromas that floated from Mantilla’s bakery, those whiffs of freshly baked bread.
What blows out these days reeks of acid… Oh, and the day Motivito, a young guy in the neighborhood, came to my house with a Beatles LP, since our record player still worked. That was the first time I heard “Fool on the Hill,” like Mario Conde [a character featured in several of Padura’s novels].
HT: What circumstances are determining for you in the sublime act of undertaking a literary work?
LP: If it’s a novel, obsession. If it’s an essay, a mental itch. You can’t take on the work of a novel if you’re not obsessed about it, with the story, with its writing. Because to spend two, three, or four years of your life writing a novel, you have to be obsessed with it. That’s the only motor that can drive you in something so crazy.
The mental itch makes you want to clarify something to yourself, thinking you have a good idea to share. That’s the genesis of the essay.
HT: Based on your experience, how do you think journalism has nurtured you as a writer and your work?
LP: Journalism has nurtured me in every way possible: in terms of the craft that it gave me, training with words, learning the ability and the communicative need for writing, knowledge of reality and history, exercise in trying to express what exists but what others don’t see or what they see differently.
I owe a lot to the years I worked in journalism at the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (JR), because there I was able to do real journalism, with a lot of freedom, in the content and form. It was so much so that between the young apprentice writer who arrived at JR in 1983 — after having been sanctioned and kicked off of El Caiman Barbudo (a Cuban youth cultural magazine) — and the writer who six years later began writing Pasado perfecto (Havana Blue, the English translation) is the distance between an amateur and a professional, in all senses.
But even feeling myself fully realized as a journalist, knowing that my work had made a significant mark on the profession in Cuba, like Hemingway I thought that journalism could devour a writer. So eventually I had to leave, but only as a profession, not as a passion – I’ve never stopped doing journalism.
HT: The character Mario Conde, the fruit of your literary work, based on what pursuit or concerns did he reveal himself to you?
LP: Mario Conde is a complicated issue, so much so that I wrote a short essay on him in which I explain his literary and conceptual origins as well as his development over nearly 20 years. When I began Pasado perfecto I decided to write a crime novel that would be, above everything else, a novel that didn’t look like one of the typical Cuban detective novels.
To achieve that, it was essential to have a character capable of realizing those two aspirations from within the novel. For this, I created a police officer as unorthodox as Conde. But in addition, Conde was to be my eyes and my voice in that novel, despite his being a cop. In this way, technically, the entire perspective of the narrative could pass through him, with his sensitivity and personality marking what reaches the reader.
That’s why I had to construct him with the utmost care, giving him well-defined personal and generational characteristics, even touches of bookishness and street culture were also appropriate. Things became more complicated though when I decided that he wouldn’t be only the protagonist of one novel. Instead, there would be several…so now there are six, with a seventh on the way.
HT: How did the great Cuban poet Jose Maria de Heredia come into your life, and what was it that caused you such deep interest in that poet.
LP: Heredia came to me as he did to all Cubans of my generation – through his patriotic poems in school. “For not in vain between Cuba and Spain, do immense waves there reign.” But one day I came across a letter of his in which he asks when he would finish the novel of his life… That revealed all of his drama to me.
I then began to investigate, so I could write that life that he himself had considered a novel. What had been intuition turned into a revelation: Heredia was not only the first Cuban who spoke and wrote about the nation, but he was the first Cuban poet, the first Cuban exile, the first betrayed Cuban.
All of the keys of Cubania were based on or passed through him. So in the novel I tried to establish an arc of continuity between the genesis of everything — Heredia — and what we Cubans still are. If there was an indispensable key, it’s in the letter in which Heredia admits his passion for okra stew… I too am Heredia!
HT: What relation might your existence have to this sentence: “When will the novel of my life end so its reality can begin?”
LP: With my existence? Well, very little: I’m an absolute materialist. I’ve always tried to live with my feet on the ground, so I don’t ever look at myself novelescamente (like something out of a novel).
HT: If we were to discuss the awards you’ve won in your vast career, this would take up the rest of the interview. So just tell us about the impact your latest novel has had on countries such as France, Mexico and Cuba.
LP: I’m very pleased with the reception the novel has had. Not so much for the awards, which, as you know, are circumstantial – although now, with four international awards (in France and Italy) one can feel more than rewarded, really.
But I think what’s most important is the relationship that the novel has established with Cuban readers, who are the ones for whom I wrote the book. I thought about them when I made many of the most important decisions in the novel.
In Cuba, many of the issues that I talked about were scarcely known, or poorly known, or were walled in. Not only those relating to the stay in Cuba of Ramon Mercader (the murderer of Leon Trotsky), but especially the process of the degradation and even criminalization into which fell the ideal of socialism from the time when Stalin took power and shaped his own “socialist” model, one in which his economic and social structures were an absolute sickly creation.
That’s why when I began hearing how my novel resonated with Cuban readers I was very pleased and even proud.
The most common reaction has been to tell me, through whatever means, that they were able to “get” my novel — sometimes through bizarre means — and that in reading it they felt the need to “thank me” for having written it, adding that it helped them understand history and even Stalin’s role in it. I’m not talking about five or ten readers, there have been dozens…
Isn’t that a way to feel satisfied? That’s why, and because of the great international reception the book has received, I don’t care so much about the tepid institutional reception in Cuba of the book and its awards. But the truth is that it’s not every day that a Cuban writer wins an award like the Roger Caillois or Calbert prizes. The fact is that a Cuban had never won one before. But one gets used to everything…
HT: The cinema has been another means of expression in your career, but if you were to distinguish between your literary works and your writing for the cinema, what interesting definitions would you give to these two creative areas.
LP: I’m not a screenwriter, but I have written scripts. I don’t like the relationship established between the text, the author and director (or producer, or both) in the cinema. The freedom of choice that I have in the novel is a paradise that doesn’t exist in screenwriting, which is all about service and has to be utilitarian. It’s for meeting the needs and expectations of others.
HT: What would the intellectual and critic Padura say about Padura the writer?
LP: I’d be too embarrassed to say in public.
HT: What other upcoming ideas do you have?
LP: Another novel, another script (despite what I said before). The script would be with a director I respect a great deal, the French director Laurent Cantet, based on one moment, a specific episode of La novela de mi vida.
The novel that I’m writing, which I hope will be titled Herejes (Heretics), is a work that is as ambitious as my previous El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs), as it covers a long historical period from the time of Rembrandt in Amsterdam to the Havana of today.
Mario Conde is the co-protagonist of the novel, as there are two central characters, one in the seventeenth century (a Sephardic Jew who wants to be a painter) and another in the first half of the twentieth century (an Ashkenazi Jew who wants to stop being Jewish and be Cuban).
It’s a novel about the pursuit of individual freedom, the practice of free will in different times and places, and the consequences that people pay for choosing freedom. One of them is being considered a heretic, in every sense of the term.