Twenty-five years is a young age for a person, but it has another connotation when it’s about a character that lives in the pages of books. And in 2016 the indescribable, disturbing and popular Mario Conde, the main character – until now – of eight of Leonardo Padura’s novels, is precisely turning 25 in a cycle that we will try to tour in a very tight way.
Mario Conde began his tour of novels in the edition of Pasado perfecto (Havana Blue) that the University of Guadalajara brought out in 1991. One of the paradoxes that surround Conde is his birthplace: being a deeply rooted Cuban he went to Mexico to be born.
We don’t know what the international circulation was in that first edition of Pasado perfecto and how many copies reached Cuba, because it was only three or four years later that I was able to read the novel, thanks to a copy the author lent me. By then I had already read Vientos de cuaresma (Havana Gold), the second novel of the saga.
That inverse order did not alter the final result of the reading, the view of the world that the works leave us, because the plots of both of them take place in 1989 like the other two books of the tetralogy: Máscaras (Havana Red) and Paisaje de otoño (Havana Black), just that the seasons are different. In fact, the majority of Cuban readers have not been able to read Padura’s novels (neither these nor the following ones) in an orderly way given the high degree of difficulty to have access to them. (They are products in high demand and short supply on the island.)
The sensation produced in me by those two novels, which I devoured more than read, was of jubilation and surprise in finding a different, new type of Cuban detective literature that was radically separated from the exhausted model that had reigned for two decades. The writer’s achievement was relevant: he was placing his books in the vanguard of local narrative at the same time as in that of the Iberian-American neo-detective novel.
Discovered by Cuban readers in Vientos de cuaresma (1994), the only one whose edition has been first published in Cuba, Conde’s popularity has continued to grow with each new novel, in each time the character comes back, as the years go by.
What did that character bring us, which were his attractions, why does he lead readers from all over the world to follow his adventures and vicissitudes?
In the first place, because of the essential quality asked of a literary character: his artistic credibility, his coherence when acting and communicating in the different spaces of the story, in the different atmospheres of each told story.
The construction of the character contains a great wealth of elements coming from different sources, with commendable rigor. The result crowns the topmost aspiration of an artistic creator: that his creature have an organic projection when involved in different plots and that he have an identity, his own mark.
That Character did not exist in Cuban detective novels before Padura, who takes, to this genre, a realistic police officer in the literary field who will continue “living” after the story told in each work.
The first four novels with Mario Conde have a common scenario, the Cuban society of 1989. A year in which the process of the imprisonment and the trials of high-ranking officers of the Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry took place, events that threw into confusion citizens’ conscience; a rift that came at the same time as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The crimes he has to investigate in “Las cuatroestaciones” (The Four Seasons) take him to dark areas of society that had remained submerged in the previous generic literature: corruption, deceit, double standards, ideological intolerance, homophobia, illicit enrichment, prostitution, ambitiousness. These are the “good things” that come up in Pasado perfecto, Vientos de cuaresma, Máscaras and Paisaje de otoño.
But in the novels per se, the chronicle of a generational group (Conde’s and his friends’) that has had to face the effects of those evils with the force of friendship and solidarity, takes place like a correlate of the criminal plot.
After the 1989 cycle closed, Mario Condemade another two appearances that take place in the following decade, in the novels La cola de la serpiente (The Snake’s Tail) and Adios Hemingway (Goodbye Hemingway). The first comes up in the investigation that gave rise to the feature on Havana’s China town; the second, despite its brevity, is a significant text in connection with the subsequent ambitious novels, and is the first reference of Conde as a hunter of used books.
He fully appears as a seeker of hidden libraries in La neblinadelayer (Havana Fever), where we see him struggling with a society different from that of the previous novels. Involved in unveiling an enigma, Conde enters the depths of a Havana in the new millennium, in areas marked by marginality and resembling a recently bombarded city. In these scenarios, set in 2003, he is accompanied by Yoyi “el palomo”, a young engineer who has, in high doses, the tools Conde lacks for the world of business.
Mario Conde’s last appearance (in Herejes, 2013) registers new vital courses because he no longer goes after the trail of a murderer but also of a work of art behind which there is a homicide, but also a story of almost four centuries and many questions; a task in which he adds the search for a missing young Havana woman whose most notorious sign is that she belongs to one of the so-called urban tribes.
The queries pursued by Mario Conde in this work are philosophical, religious, political, artistic, historical, sociological, anthropological, a sign of how much the character has evolved in the hands of his creator.
After a quarter of a century of adventures, the former police officer already sails in transatlantic waters together with the architect who gave birth to him, but who did not imagine the transcendence the miracle of that creation would have.
However, perhaps the question that still worries Mario Conde the most is why his novels don’t circulate in Cuba as they should, why his natural readers should have to suffer so much to get them.
We, who study the work of Padura, ask ourselves the same question, because we are also the victims of that crime of lese-culture. My book of essays (A)cercando a Leonardo Padura, printed since in March 2015 after a long period of suffering, up to what we know, has not circulated through the country’s bookstores. It is an enigma that Conde has not been able to clarify (though I can imagine the reasons). (2016)
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