Wednesday, July 26, 2006

More recommended reading

A little while back, I posted a list of English-language books that would be helpful for someone who had read Child of the Revolution and wanted to know more about Cuba or the Cuban exile experience. The list, which was included in material prepared by Allen & Unwin for reading groups, was far from exhaustive.

There is another book I am currently reading that would make perfect reading for anyone wanting to understand just what is going on in Cuba today. And it’s a good read, too. Sadly, the book is only available in Spanish at the moment.

It is called La Neblina del Ayer and is written by a Cuban-based writer called Leonardo Padura.

Published last year in Madrid, the book is the latest in a series of detective novels featuring Mario Conde, who used to be a police officer but now, some 20 years after the setting for the first novel, makes a living selling rare second hand books in Havana. Conde buys the books from elderly or destitute Cubans who are desperate to get their hands on US dollars or euros so they can use the hard currency to supplement the meagre and unreliable rations they are entitled to in the official, Cubans-only shops. It's a rationing system that has been in place since 1962 - that's right, since 1962! - and which I recount in a chapter of my own book. Conde then sells the rare books to rich foreigners. For dollars, of course. It’s not strictly legal but as the one-time police officer says, Everyone does it to survive.

This fictional transition itself – from police officer defending revolutionary ideals to mini-capitalist weaving his way around an oppressive bureaucracy - speaks volume about what has happened to Fidel Castro’s once ambitious and in many cases, popular Revolution.

I have now read all of Padura’s previous Conde works, and as the books progress, the protagonist’s total disillusionment with the regime becomes more and more in-your-face. Same with the growing cynicism of almost all of Padura’s finely-drawn characters. It’s expertly done. Sometimes, you need to read between the lines – which is much easier for Cubans, of course – but by and large, that sense of decay and hopelessness is unmistakable, whether deliberate or not.

Padura still lives in Cuba, appears to be tolerated by the regime and is occasionally interviewed by the local media, which is government-controlled. And yet his books are much better known outside the island. Perhaps it's the fact that the image he paints of Havana is not one that would please the censors, let alone tourism authorities: a city that is at once exciting and haunting but also crumbling, dirty, totally corrupt (everyone is on the take), and increasingly crime-ridden. And populated by a people who are sick and tired of revolutionary slogans and who see foreigners as nothing more than a convenient meal ticket.

In many ways, Padura's work reminds me of the books and films and plays that started to flourish in Spain in the few years before Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, when writers and film-makers were constantly (but very carefully) testing the limits of francoist censorship. Largely because they knew El Caudillo - as Franco was known in the official media - was near death ... and they were convinced his regime would collapse as soon as he was buried. Sounds familiar?

Anyway, Neblina del Ayer is fascinating reading. And highly recommended.

Note: Two of the earlier Mario Conde novels are now been translated into English: Havana Red and Havana Black. I gather you can get them through Amazon.


Post a Comment

<< Home