Twenty-five years with Mario Conde

Now with a face for cinema.

Around this time in 1990, with the August heat plus the heat caused by the news getting here every day from Eastern Europe and which threatened to incinerate us, I took one of the decisions that, without imagining what it would represent, would have greater transcendence in my personal and professional life: I would call Mario Conde the detective in charge of carrying out the criminal investigations in the detective novel I had started to write. One year later, in the autumn of 1991, in a modest Mexican edition brought out by the publishing house of the University of Guadalajara, that novel would come to light and which I titled Pasado perfecto (Past Perfect), whose leading character was that police officer with a surname that functioned like a nickname – Conde (the Count) -, that character that with loyalty and integrity has accompanied me in many of my literary endeavours of the last 25 years.

Of course, for me it was impossible to imagine what, with the years, would come out of that attempt to write a Cuban, very Cuban, detective novel, but that would try to get away from the stereotypes established on the island.


The initial creation of Mario Conde did not include the possibility that his life would be prolonged in time, though without being aware of it, the character already had in its DNA that reproductive capacity. Though in Pasado perfecto this figure is still rather functional in narrative terms, I placed all my creative effort in the confrontation of his personal history and his character with the aim of giving him a humanity capable of conferring on him, at the same time, singularity and universality. That is why, though the initial Mario Conde still had not completed the peculiarities of his character, he had some of the conditions that since then would accompany him: Conde was going be – and was and would continue to be – a Cuban who sees and lives life from the perspective of the street, of his barrio, of his generation and of his sensitivity. And from that point of view he expresses the reality surrounding him and aims to connect it to the dramas proper of the universal human condition.


If throughout the 1990s I wrote other novels with the character of Mario Conde and if in these years of the 21st century I have made an effort to write another four (including La cola de la serpiente [The Serpent’s Tail]), it was all due to what came from that experiment in which I immersed myself 25 years ago. Because when I was able to bring to Cuba some copies of the Mexican edition of Pasado perfecto and I distributed them among my friends-readers, there was a sort of predestined coincidence in the comments I demanded from them to know what I had achieved: even to those who were less enthusiastic over the novel, what worked the best for them, what attracted them the most, was the personality of that police officer who didn’t even know the reason why he was a police officer, who at some time wanted to be a writer (and still wanted to be one), who had friends with whom he would get drunk until he became unconscious and with whom he spoke of the human and the divine, fell madly in love and, despite his profession, was someone who on principle rejected violence, more so when it was carried out from positions of power. A police officer who, to be a bit more implausible, practically knew nothing about scientific investigation procedures and whose existential problems included that of thinking that he was wasting a life that was not his.


On the long literary road I have travelled in these years accompanied by Mario Conde several surprises would be waiting for me: first the fact of being able to prolong his life for so many years; later the arrival of recognitions that began with the UNEAC Prize for novel of 1993 and were established with the Café Gijón Prize of 1995, in Spain, an award that would serve to place that novel – Máscaras (Masks) – in the hands of the Tusquets publishing house, which decided to publish it to open the doors for me to the Spanish book market and of the rest of the world – until now in the 21 languages in which the stories of Mario Conde have appeared.


Throughout this entire process, in which I am still immersed – I have started writing a new novel in which, because of the argument of intrigue I again resort to Conde -, the life of this character has evolved from the youth of his 35 years to the arrival of the frightening 60 years, he has changed profession – from police officer to buyer of old books -, while the circumstance that surrounds him has also moved to the rhythm of the time that has passed since the critical 1989 until the present full of question marks we are living. With Mario Conde we have endeavoured to make a tour of the Cuban reality and spirituality of these years, from several generational perspectives (though that of his/my generation predominates), to create a sort of chronicle of a tense and intense period of national life. But, at the same time, I have set the character in convictions that are unalterable since they imply humanity and its ethics: his loyalty, his decency, his romanticism, his pessimism, his nostalgia…his nicotinic and ethylic preferences.


When getting to his 25 years of literary life a new challenge has appeared for this character: his transmutation into a cinematographic figure, with a voice and a face. After long years of waiting and of attempts to achieve it, at last that possibility has materialised thanks to the series of four films for TV – one of them. Vientos de cuaresma (Winds of Lent), will have a film version -, produced by Tornasol Films, directed by Spaniard Félix Viscarret and played by Jorge Perugorría…Conde’s film face. But if by any change this film version whose premiere is previewed for 2016 was already too much for any dream I could have had in 1990, Mario Conde will have another audiovisual life, in the series that with the cooperation of companies from several countries Spanish actor Antonio Banderas aims to produce and star in…another film face for Conde!


For my personal satisfaction, while Mario Conde suffers the arduous process of going from literature to cinema, with all the risks the process implies, his purely novel-like life is in good health: on the occasion of the upcoming International Book Fair of Guadalajara (the city in which his editorial life came to life 24 years ago) the Mexican branch of Tusquets will publish a commemorative edition of Pasado perfecto, the novel in which the character made his debut 25 years ago and that, despite the time that has gone by, continues having readers in many parts of the world.


My personal and literary life would not be what it has been and is without the existence of this literary police officer, turned into a buyer of old books and an eternal witness of such a peculiar society as the Cuban one. Mario Conde has been, during all this time, my eyes in those eight novels in which we have coexisted, and the reason behind my greatest pride: that readers in many parts of the world and above all Cubans (to whom it is more difficult to have access to Conde’s books) have accepted and loved him, and have even presented him with the capacity to become a character that is in the person that some see, and about whose life, fate and continuity I am frequently asked.


That is why, though with his discretion and usual shyness, the invisible but tangible Mario Conde will be with me in the ceremony to receive the Princess of Asturias Prize for Literature 2015. Because without Conde, how could I have gotten there? (2015)

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