Leonardo Padura Speaks on His Novels and Cuba

June 7, 2017 |

Cubans wait under a large question mark for the end of Raul Castro’s presidency in 2018: “There’s no will for an immediate political opening.”

By Carlos Fernando Chamorro  (Confidencial)

Leonardo Padura.  Photo: Carlos Herrera /confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – Cuban writer Leonardo Padura announced in Managua the publication of his new novel, set for release in January 2018.  The book, “The Transparency of Time” features the reappearance of the emblematic detective Mario Conde, now as a retired police officer in the contemporary Cuba of 2014. The novelist gives a portrait of a society “in which pockets of poverty have appeared, alongside certain sectors whose economic possibilities are a little better.” Padura describes this new reality as the expansion of a society” that tried to be egalitarian under the socialism of Fidel Castro.

Within this panorama – and without being able to predict the unraveling of his economic reforms – his brother Raul will give up the presidency in 2018.  As in all Padura’s novels, this one is set within a Cuban reality that abounds in enigmas, riddles and contradictions.

Padura, the most outstanding figure in current Cuban literature, participated for a week in the fifth annual “Central America speaks” event.  He never tired of thanking the organizers of this event, coordinated by Sergio Ramirez, for allowing him to visit Nicaragua.  Although he complained that “they squeezed the last drops out of me” with an excess of work in multiple sessions, he also acclaimed with surprise the discovery of “many, many readers” of his works in our country.

In 2015 – sporting a white guayabera shirt and with a baseball in his hand to symbolize Mantilla, Cuba, the Havana neighborhood where he was born – Padura received in Spain the “Princess of Asturias” prize for writing.  The prize was awarded in recognition of his works, including “The man who loved dogs”, a dazzling novel based on the story of Ramon Mercader, the man who murdered Leon Trotsky. In addition, he’s the author of a series of detective novels, based around the character of police officer Mario Conde.  Conde has now been brought to life by the stellar Cuban actor Jorge Perugorria in the Netflix series “Four seasons in Havana”.

Padura has also written “Heretics” and “La Novela de mi Vida” [The novel of my life], which served as inspiration for the script of “Return to Ithaca”, a movie about pain and love directed by Frenchman Laurent Cantet.  Padura explains this and other things in this conversation with Confidencial and the staff of the “Esta Semana” [“This week”] television program.

Stalin and the end of the socialist utopia

Your novel, “The Man who Loved Dogs”, in addition to showcasing your impressive historical research, is also a portrait and critique of Stalinism as a system. How can this type of novel be written and published in Cuba?

The novel deals with both collective and personal experiences, because, well, I’ve lived in Cuba all my life and I arrived at the subject matter a bit through unfamiliarity.  In Cuba, the figure of Trotsky was presented very similarly to the image that existed in the Soviet Union.  I don’t know if you remember that photo on Red Square, where the Bolshevik leaders appeared, and from which Stalin would go along erasing figures.  Well, in the photo that we used to see in Cuba, the figure of Trotsky didn’t appear at all and that led me to become curious about this personality.  Later, when I learned that Ramon Mercader had lived in Cuba, it was like a shock in several senses, but above all because I discovered that a figure from history had been my contemporary and that I could have crossed paths with him.

And all that just built up until I arrived at this novel in which, I think, the moment of Trotsky’s murder takes on a symbolic character, having to do with the definitive point of no return for Stalinism.  The moment arrives in which an unnecessary crime is committed, but over the course of the entire decade of the thirties the original Bolshevik ideals had been perverted.  It’s the era of the trials in Moscow, of the land collectivization, of the fight against the Kulacks (affluent peasants), of famine in the Ukraine – ten million people dead.  I believe that from there that so beautiful project of creating a society of equals where there could be maximum democracy, became deformed. Stalin corrupted that possibility, and it could never be recovered.

But, how did Cuban readers and the Cuban government react?

There are two great satisfactions that I’ve received as a writer in terms of my relations with my readers. The first is the relationship that my Cuban readers have established with my character of Mario Conde, who they relate to as if he were a real person; the other has been the response to “The Man who Loved Dogs”. I received an enormous volume of telephone calls, e-mails, and personal conversations where people thanked me for having written this novel, because through reading that book they had come to understand many things about their own history and the history of Cuba and about the twentieth century that they didn’t know about from that perspective.  This showed me the extent that literature can be useful to other people.

In that novel about Soviet society there are also many elements that are reflected later in the Cuban process.  How did the Cuban government react?

The book was published in Cuba. The first edition came out in Spain in 2009, and it was published in Cuba in 2010 and presented at the annual Book Fair in 2011.  There were two editions released and the book won the critics’ prize. I believe that it was an important factor in my receipt of the National Prize for Literature in Cuba.  However, commentaries on the book were scarce; I know that it had a great quantity of readers, even though they were small editions, but it received little resonance in the media.

A detective in Havana and the social novel

Your detective novels with policeman Mario Conde, who people speak about as if he were a real person of flesh and blood, seem more like novels or reflections about the Cuban social reality.

They’re social novels. I utilized the police genre, just as in novels like “The Man who Loved Dogs”, “The Novel of my Life”, or “Heretics” I use history as a way of understanding the present. All of these stories take place in contemporary times.  There are leaps to the past, but the first books of the series – the four books that are now being seen as a movie on Netflix – begin in 1989.  I’ve continued working on Mario Conde’s development over time, and on stories related to Cuban society.

He also appeared in “Heretics”.

Yes, in “Heretics” in 2008, and in the novel that I’m now finishing, he appears in 2014.  The novel ends on December 17, 2014. Mario Conde gets up in the morning with a premonition that something’s going to happen that day. That’s the day they announced the beginning of conversations between the United States and Cuba to reestablish relations.  In other words, I’m going forward with him in time. That’s very important for me because it lets me understand the process of evolution within Cuban society, but also the process of human and physical evolution of an individual, because Mario Conde is aging right alongside of myself.  His knees are hurting just like mine, he’s having problems thinking “When am I going to stop smoking?” in the face of that cough that has to do with my cigarettes.  I’ve transferred onto his character many of my social and existential worries through all these years.

That character that you conjured up and who has lived with you now has acquired a face for many people in the person of actor Jorge Perugorria. How did he come to embody Conde?

In 2000 a movie director appeared in Cuba with a proposal to produce a movie based on one of the books.  He arrived already thinking of Jorge Perugorria as the film’s protagonist in the role of Mario Conde.  From there on, there were many proposals that were unfulfilled and didn’t get done, but they always involved Perugorria, because he’s the most familiar face in Cuban cinema.  And over all those years, I believe that “Pichi” – as we call Perugorria – drew ever closer to the character of Mario Conde.  So, by the time that the opportunity to make this movie series was finally made concrete, and Tomasol Films was able to set up the project and [the Spanish producer who negotiated its distribution through Netflix] decided that it would be Jorge Perugorria, “Pichi” had already fully assimilated the character of Mario Conde. I think that it wasn’t especially difficult for him, because he’s a man of that same generation: he shares Mario’s concerns, his culture, and that allows him to get much closer to the character.  I believe he interprets him splendidly.  For me as a writer, it still feels very strange to see Mario Conde physically; in fact, he’s a character that I never describe in any of my novels.

Reencountering Cuba: between grief and love

From Return to Ithaca

La Novela de mi Vida” [The Novel of my Life] deals with the birth of the Cuban identity before independence, but also with the great current dilemmas. Characters who live in revolutionary Cuba have to leave the country, then come back and upon their return meet pain again.  From there, the screenplay of “Return to Ithaca.” was born, a script you wrote with your wife Lucia and the Frenchman Laurent Cantet who directed the film. It’s a film in which the characters speak of banishment and of the pain in everyday life in Cuba.

That’s a movie about grief and love. Of grief for the losses, and love for the permanent.  The permanent is Cuba.  It was also a movie that was made with a very low budget and we had to write a screenplay that adapted itself to our economic possibilities. At any rate, [Cantet] wanted it to have one single location and one moment in time.

Filmed in an attic

It was filmed over 17 days, an almost incredible feat.  A group of friends are reviewing what their life has been like in current-day Cuba.  I’m very satisfied, because I think that it’s a possible portrait of my generation.  Of course, there are other divisions, reality can’t be explained in one way only, but I believe that this film gets very close to what have been the expectations, the hopes and the frustrations of my generation.

This next year will be the last one for President Raul Castro.  The reforms of the past few years have generated expectations about producing better economic results, and later for the political arena. How is this process being lived out in Cuba?  Will there be some transition?

It’s like living with a large question mark, and we have little information beyond knowing that in February of 2018 Raul’s period as president of the country ends.  However, it seems that his term as First Party Secretary doesn’t end, which means he’s going to continue playing a fundamental political role.  In the Cuba that begins in those moments, several different names are being floated as the possible future president of Cuba, including current First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel.  But – what’s really going to happen?  How is it going to play out? The government is planning for a process of continuity, and I believe there will be continuity, but it’s going to have to be layered with changes that go much deeper than those that have occurred up until now.

This is complicated in terms of the Cuban reality. If I tell you for example that in the year 2005 a Cuban citizen couldn’t have a cell phone because they didn’t give you permission to have a line, and one of the changes that Raul introduced was that Cubans could have cell phones. To a person from another part of the world, this could seem…, but it’s an important change, and there’ve been others like that one.

I believe that the fact that Cubans’ possibilities for travel was liberalized, a possibility that for more than 50 years was very controlled, is another important change.  There’ve been small economic openings, but I think that there has to be a greater deepening, above all in this economic opening. Last year Cuba was in recession, the Gross National Product decreased; this year it’s going to increase very little, and an economic debt is being accumulated, an aging infrastructure that requires a major economic action to better the life of Cubans.

The principal drama of Cuba: the young people who leave

Young Cubans.  Photo: Juan Suarez

I was in Cuba at the end of last year, and the people I talked to in the street said: “Yes, there’ve been some reforms, but we’re spectators; others make the decisions and set the direction of the country.” The young people, in particular, talk of having no future in their country.

That’s a drama, and one of the challenges for the future of Cuba.  In the last years many, many young people have emigrated from the country. Currently, this has become a little more complicated with the change in the North American laws that used to allow the policy known as “dry foot, wet foot”, whereby any Cuban who reached US territory immediately had the right to residency.  This has become more complicated.

Trump hasn’t yet issued any pronouncement with respect to this, he’s barely talked about Cuba.  I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, considering how unpredictable Trump is. But there’s been a major drain of young Cuban human capital, because many of those young people who left were the best educated: computer engineers, doctors, physicists, etc.  A solution must be sought to retain the human capital that’s been formed in the country. It’s an extremely important resource for the future of Cuba.  If the principal problem that we have is of an economic character, then that intelligence is of the greatest importance; but you have to offer them space for the development of that intelligence.

In the last years, some independent digital media have emerged such as El Estornudo [The Sneeze], Periodismo del barrio [Neighborhood reporting], and Catorce y medio [Fourteen and a half]. How much real space do they have? Is there a place in Cuba for an autonomous civil society that could influence the future of those changes?

Look, if we were to go back ten, fifteen years ago, the existence of these spaces – that basically have their reason for being thanks to the possibilities of the Internet – would have been unimaginable in Cuba.  Today they exist.  The problem is that they’re read more outside of Cuba than inside, precisely because of the very limited access to the Internet that Cubans have.

At any rate, I believe that it’s important that there be a diversification of opinions. I feel that Cuban society needs many more spaces for debate, [so that] some lights can emerge to help us understand better what things we want and where we want to go to. However, it has to be, as Marti put it: “with everyone and for the good of everyone.”

Up until now there’s no indication that in addition to the economic reforms there’s some movement towards a political opening.  Is there?

No, there isn’t.  Even in the area of culture, I feel that there were spaces that were much more open five or six years ago but that now are much more controlled, much more closed.  So I don’t believe that there’s any will for an immediate political opening.

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What's your opinion?

  • A guarded but insightful discussion. I can see I have some catching up to do with Leonardo’s literature!

  • johnwagner

    I’ve read and enjoyed two of Padura’s perceptive novels (in translation). I intend to read more.

  • Carlyle MacDuff

    A very interesting and revealing interview. I note with a degree of regret, that Paduro’s views about supposed change in Cuba are similar to my own which motivated me to write as I did. All the talk about change taking place in Cuba has been without basis. The daily lives of the average Cubans have not changed and as Paduro responded to being questioned about the possibility of “some movement towards a political opening” with a flat denial of: “No, there isn’t”.
    He finally expresses the view that cultural opportunities were greater five or six years ago but that they are “now much more controlled, much more closed.”
    That reflects how successful Raul Castro has been in maintaining the communist grip. The greatest threat and fear of the regime is allowing change. Communism is not flexible.