A sprawling tale of a missing art masterpiece that ranges between modern Cuba and Rembrandt’s Amsterdam hooks Siobhan Murphy, writing for London’s Times.
Leonardo Padura’s rum-soaked, chain-smoking detective Mario Conde has always been an uncompromising advocate of personal liberty. In the Cuban author’s excellent Havana Quartet of crime novels, and the follow-up, Havana Fever, the wilful policeman turned second-hand bookseller has reliably ploughed his own gruff furrow as he has delved into the most pungent corners of Cuba’s capital. However, in Heretics, Conde’s latest outing, the importance of choosing your own life is the dominant theme in a multistranded tale.
“To be a heretic,” we’re told, is colloquial Cuban Spanish to describe a difficult situation, “especially in political or economic aspects”. In that respect, it’s Conde’s permanent state of existence, as he scrapes along with a select group of friends, fellow “survivors” of the revolution and Cuba’s subsequent crises.
Heretics starts conventionally enough; Conde is approached by an American, Elias Kaminsky, in search of the story behind a Rembrandt portrait that has shown up in a London auction house. Elias’s Polish-Jewish grandparents had carried that painting, a family heirloom, on their flight from Nazi Germany on board the (real-life) MS Saint Louis in 1939.
When the ocean liner was refused entry to Cuba, and was forced to return its 900 refugees to Europe and certain death, the painting didn’t go with them. Elias will pay Conde handsomely to find out what happened — and Padura toggles between mid-20th-century Havana and the modern-day city to show us.
Then things take a turn for the unexpected. The middle section is a lengthy digression to 17th-century Amsterdam, to the workshop of Rembrandt and the story of how the Kaminskys’ painting was created. Elias Ambrosius, a young Jewish boy with a passion and talent for art, wants to become an apprentice of the master painter, even though depictions of human beings and animals are proscribed by his faith. In this tolerant city, known as New Jerusalem, he believes he can find a way to realise his heretical dream. However, when Rembrandt uses Elias as his model for Christ for his Supper at Emmaus, Elias’s own community has different ideas.
For the third section, we’re back in contemporary Cuba, where Conde is asked to find a missing girl. Judy Torres is an 18-year-old emo kid, one of the young Cubans who “want to be what they decide to be . . . in this country where people are continually ordered about”. Judy’s nonconformist desires had led her to Nietzsche, Nirvana, Blade Runner and self-harming. Conde becomes intrigued with her battle to define herself, maybe because it chimes with his own philosophy.
He, meanwhile, is tussling with the idea of marriage and the crushing conventionality that would introduce into his ramshackle life. For a last flourish, Padura throws in an account of the brutal anti-Jewish pogroms carried out in Poland in the 1600s.
Padura, probably Cuba’s best-known writer, takes a Walter Mosley/James Sallis approach to crime fiction: the deeds themselves can almost seem incidental to what they reveal to his philosophical detective about society’s ills.
There are links (albeit sometimes tenuous) between the four sections, but it makes for a giddy reading experience to be catapulted between such different worlds. Rembrandt’s Amsterdam is like a delicate, detailed miniature framed and held apart from messy modern reality. It’s definitely not your typical crime novel; it’s also sometimes a struggle to keep up with the often rococo prose style — one character’s “ethylic excesses”, another’s “epidermic pallor”, all faithfully translated by Anna Kushner. And yet the book’s sheer cussed refusal to conform, and Conde’s crabby charms, chime so well with its central concern that you can’t help finding the whole thing oddly appealing.
Heretics by Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner, Bitter Lemon, 525pp, £12.99