Heretics by Leonardo Padura (tr. Anna Kushner). Bitter Lemon Press. 556 pp., $19.95.
Mario Conde, veteran of rude awakenings, wakes to another of the worst hangovers of his life the morning after he publicly decides to marry the woman he’s loved since before the hangovers began. Tamara Valdemira, in front of a small group of friends, including the telephone voice of one who’s left Cuba for Florida forever, responded to his proposal by saying she doesn’t want to marry anyone. They’ve been together for twenty years. She’s been married before, he was the cop who investigated her husband, the three of them went to high school together, back in a different era. When Mario finds himself tying on an apron to clean the party’s mess, naked ass exposed, instead of leaving her to sleep and slipping out the door of her house as usual, he realizes with horror that he may have suddenly become someone else. Later that day, after learning the fate of the missing teenage girl he’d been looking for, a girl who even in her absence forced him to question everything from his disbelief in god to his understanding of Cuba’s revolutionary failure, Conde thinks of his grandfather, who tried and failed to teach him that the world was one big cockfight.
The shape of a crime novel is determined by the search for something absent. But that missing person or object or knowledge is present in every deliberate or unintended lacuna. Leonardo Padura is famous for his books starring Conde, who used to be a detective, wants to be a writer, and ends up a used book seller and occasional freelance private eye. Or at least that’s where we find him in Heretics. Padura’s books scan Cuba’s streets and food and rum and heat and sea, the history of isolation enforced by imperial power bent toward the global rule of capitalism. In a 2013 New Yorker profile that brought his name to a wider U.S. public, Padura is presented as a curiosity for writing critically while living under the Castro regime. Maybe honesty demands exile. Or maybe Padura’s commitment to the people he cares about, and their care and commitment for him in return, has maintained some alternate and formidable community within the general decadence.
Do the censors miss metaphors by accident or on purpose? Heretics offers a kind of counterimage in the S.S. Saint Louis, which landed in the port of Havana in 1939 with nine hundred Jewish refugees seeking a promised asylum. They are turned away from Cuba, from the United States, from Canada, before returning to a malignant Europe, a “voyage of the damned.” This actual bit of history in a 2013 novel does not fail to call up recent photos of overcrowded inflatable boats crossing the Mediterranean on a course of desperate hope. The crisis of nationalism continues to offer the illusion of home and hospitality while producing the conditions that make such things for so many impossible. And while Padura uses the St. Louis as a jump off to implicate pre-revolutionary Cuba in the world’s disaster, to explore the revolution’s expulsion of its nascent Jewish community, and to trace back and forth in time the destiny of a painting by Rembrandt, there remains the shadow of the ship as an island. The world, or one of its dreams, failed Cuba too.
Heretics’ narrative introduces Conde to Elias Kaminsky, who wants to confirm his family’s long ownership of thea painting, a portrait of a Jewish man as Jesus Christ, and its passage through Cuba, to dispute its sale at auction and return it to its rightful owners. Kaminsky also wants to learn more about his father, who was sent to live with his uncle on the island ahead of the rest his family who arrived on that ship that sailed away. They left without the painting, sold to a government official for visas that never came. Years later the official was murdered and the culprit remained unknown until Elias enlists Conde to the task. Faith and nostalgia and politics and possession mark the turns of their talk and inquiry.
Padura dips frequently into the life of Daniel, Elias’s father, evoking the life of a lost Cuba, while also offering prelude to the long digression at the book’s center, the story of Elias Ambrosius Montalbo de Ávila, a Jewish painter in Rembrandt’s studio. His religion forbid this Elias to paint, Amsterdam in the 1640s was a Jewish refuge, the tangle of discourse on the relation between freedom and the sacred becomes here so explicit it’s almost trite. Rembrandt is referred to throughout solely as the Maestro. And the question, its loftiness and idealization, even despite or because of the desire to make it concrete, illuminates the problem of neglect or expulsion in Conde’s, and perhaps Padura’s, world. The women among Rembrandt’s home are models or servants, just as Josefina’s role among Conde’s friends is to cook their meals. Elias Ambrosius takes a lover, Mariam Roca, who he wants to marry and to paint, and the two desires are so inseparable he takes his erection as evidence of the sacred and the possible capture of her gaze in paint as an achievement likened to that of a god.
Even on returning to Havana, after Elias Kaminsky has left and Conde has on a tangent picked up the case of the missing Judith Torres, even with the impression made by all he learns about her, her strength and intelligence and refusal, her hidden love for women, the force of her desire to live freely, without hypocrisy, the visceral critique at the heart of the acts of emo teens, the dominance of that male vision of enlightenment remains. Even what gets called Conde’s softness cannot lessen the impact of a society or culture determined by what it expels, willfully or unwittingly, through ideology or idealization. They reappear in the gaps with a vengeance, like cracks in the hull of a ship. Marriage does not make equals, and any society that cannot break the bonds of gender polarity is far from being free.
Kyle Proehl is working on a PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Davis. He has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, X-Tra, Art Handler, and Les Presses Éditables.
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