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Havana Red: A Mario Conde Mystery Kindle Edition
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The original publication dates are: Pasado perfecto, 1991; Vientos de cuaresma, 1994; Mascaras, 1997; Paisaje de otoño, 1998.
By the way, I haven't actually read this translation, but I've read all four volumes of the 'Havana quartet' in Spanish, and I'd give each of them five stars.
What makes "Havana Red" so fascinating is that this ode is not to the glamorous vacation oasis of casinos, clubs, and luxury hotels that once brought the city fame. This is a paean, of sorts, to present day La Habana, with its crumbling post revolution colonial buildings which require more than a paint job to restore them to former glory; the winding streets filled with a most unique charm, although in need of repair; traffic jams caused by Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles from a 1958 time warp, Soviet-made Volgas and Ladas alongside newer Japanese Hyundais and Nissans with their cacophony of honking horns that work, amazingly, even with a lack of spare parts; the glorious Malecón, that famous avenue which runs along the seawall, where one can view the ever present Castillo del Morro in the distance. This is the tropical capital of Fidel's Cuba, a lusty city full of character and color, a strange mix of Europe, America, and Africa, a stalwart lady, though faded, who resonates with the syncopated beat of the rumba. Talk of politics is ever present here, despite what outsiders think. Cubans are difficult to repress. Complaints about life and lack of liberty are also prevalent, as well as a strange cynical acceptance about the way things are. This is a city that would still inspire Hemingway and Graham Green...just as it does Leonardo Padura.
Into this extraordinary environment steps Lieutenant Mario Conde, a Havana police detective who has been taken off suspended duty, (temporarily), to investigate the lurid murder of a transvestite who turns out to be the son of a prominent Cuban government official. In the process of solving the case, Sr. Padura exposes various societal subcultures, including that of the much persecuted and marginalized homosexual community. Conde, an astute man with a well developed sense of irony, seeks assistance from talented Alberto Marqués, a retired writer and theatrical director who was blacklisted during his artistic prime. The "Marquess," ("as his coteries entitled him"), his interaction with the detective and his reminiscences of Paris in his youth, are marvelously portrayed. Really strong writing here, quite poetic at times.
Leonardo Padura won Spain's Dashiell Hammett Prize for "Havana Red." He is regarded in Cuba as a national treasure...and rightly so. In an interview Padura stated: "I would prefer it if the novel is not read solely as the story of a dead transvestite and an old homosexual who helps a policeman uncover the truth, but as a metaphor for life in Cuba, a life in which the masks worn by people hide not only sexual differences but religious and social ideologies, considered sometimes inappropriate by the official orthodoxy."
Mario learns that the victim lived with playwright and director Alberto Marques so he begins his inquiries with the former theater great disgraced and exiled by the government as a non because he is a homosexual. Marques gave Alexis, who fled from his family, refuge allowing the young transvestite to move into his falling apart home alongside his only treasure, books. As the case turns even darker under the tropical summer sun, Marques assists Mario on the investigation while trying not to hinder the law enforcement official due to his sexual preference branding him an outcast.
HAVANA RED is a terrific Cuban police procedural that provides a dark view of life on the island. The cast makes the story line as the audience sees first hand how a dedicated cop struggles to solve a murder mystery while the Party looks over his shoulder. Marques is a two edged sword as the government's displeasure with him is a problem, but his access to the underground is an asset. Leonardo Padura has three more Conde novels to come in what has started off as a fantastic first tale.
It will help to understand this book (and my review) that the title of this book in the author's native language is "Ma'scaras" (or "Masks" in English), and the book is all about masks/disguises: masks worn by the oppressed; masks worn by the bulk of citizens to avoid incurring the wrath of the state; masks worn by senior government officials that are too powerful to be hald accountable; masks worn by spies and moles in the police department. The book is an obviously allegorical account of living under the repressive Cuban regime, and a passionate expression of disgust with that regime, for creating a society in which everyone wears a mask to distort the truth of the society's repression, corruption and failure. As you go through the book, keep a highlighter or pencil nearby and mark each instance you see a reference to a mask, a disguise, a dual identity, a fear of being identified, and you will see what I mean about this book.
The narrative starts off with the discovery of the murder of a young male cross-dresser who is identified as the son of a high government official. Detective Mario Conde, the protagonist (the Count), interviews acquaintances of the victim, which provide insights into the existence, and life under repression, of LGBT residents in Havana. One of the victim's acquaintances in particular, the cross-dressing man with whom he lived, serves as the Detective's guide to the LGBT community, and his life story, more than the victim's, fills the pages of the book. His nickname is "the Marquess" so that you will not miss the point that he is the Detective's gay doppelganger. Meanwhile, in a subplot (from a narrative and not thematic point of view), the detective's department is under one of its periodic investigations and the Detective must watch his back constantly while investigating this sensational crime.
That is the narrative, but it becomes clear that the victim, and the man with whom he lived, and the LGBT community as a whole, are all serving as representatives of all the victims of the Cuban state's repression, political, cultural, etc. I will not spoil the suspense of reading by disclosing who the murderer is, but suffice it to say, that fact too is a symbolic choice of the author, as are the surprising details of the murder, which can be understood as a political statement about the effect of repression. All the clues in the book are symbolic in nature - a medal found on the body is of "the Universal Man"; he has ripped out a page of the Gospel describing Christ's Transfiguration, etc. There is a fantastic passage beginning at page 99 and running through 106 in which the Marquess explains how he was marginalized by the regime that is the heart of the book to me. This was a very daring book and it is still amazing that it was allowed to be published, as blatant an indictment of the society as it is.
While grateful to the British publisher for having had the chance to read this book, I have to note that the translation is painfully British, with many British colloquialisms that are just grating to an American ear: for example, I cannot imagine Cubans saying "mate", "bollocks", "pansy". And I don't believe the spanish verb, regalar, which means to make a gift of something, is properly translated as "regaled"( as in "the long resplendent Montecristo with which Faustino Arayan had regaled him" (p. 112). In my dictionary, "regale" means to entertain, to lavish, to feast; and not to give a small token. And of course, the publisher's decision to re-title the book has probably contributed to many of its readers missing its entire point. But, hopefully, readers of this review will be able to overcome the publisher's unfortunate and ironic "masking". of the author's theme.
Lieutenant Mario Conde of Havana Homicide has been handed a difficult case. The son of a Cuban diplomat has been murdered in Havana Woods, dressed as a woman.
The case leads Mario into the gay world, which he is manfully determined to understand despite his inborn dislike of "pansies."
There are a lot of elaborate internal monologues and reminiscences in the narration, which are densely written but very effective. In one Mario ponders the possible symbolism of transvestitism. Mario doesn't think like a typical policeman. He can get terrifically fanciful, but it works.
Mario comes to admire a gay dramatist he initially investigates. The man showed great courage under political oppression. But to balance this softening of Mario's machismo, we are treated to an elaborate coupling with a woman picked up at a party. And there's an amusing self-pleasuring situation. We can count on Leonardo Padura for erotic scenes.
I like the exotic locale of the Havana Quartet. Mario wanders among the great mansions built by rich men in Cuba's capitalist past - now turned into offices and housing. And he goes through bouts of paranoia when the Internal Investigations people start going looking into his life.
Havana Red is the second book I've read in the Havana Quartet. Readers who like international crime fiction with a literary bent will appreciate this author.
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