A report by John Paul Rathbone for the Financial Times.
I agreed to meet Leonardo Padura at his house in Mantilla, a neighbourhood of simple homes with small porches on the outskirts of Havana, and go on to the restaurant from there. Cuba’s best-known writer has always lived here — his mother still lives downstairs — in a two-storey home that he partially built with his own hands and which stands on a noisy thoroughfare, two doors up from the “Victory” bakery with a Fidel Castro slogan on its wall.
It is a Sunday evening and the brutal summer heat is lifting. Padura knows Mantilla incomparably well, yet he drives his ageing blue Subaru carefully, dodging potholes under the darkening sky. Although owning a car in Cuba is a rare luxury, his caution also strikes me as an apt metaphor. After all, taking care and dodging potholes are basic Cuban survival skills nowadays — and not just for the country’s most acute social critic.
Padura is 61, with a silvered beard, close-cropped hair and watchful eyes. He is a rare figure in communist Cuba, neither a subversive dissident nor a pulp-fiction entertainer. In the 1990s he began to make his name with a quartet of Chandleresque detective novels, whose anti-hero, Mario Conde, allows Padura to depict Cuba’s bittersweet realities in a politically acceptable way. Conde is a dissolute womaniser, slovenly, often drunk and always hard-up. Prone to philosophical self-doubt, he is a Cuban everyman who shows the reader Havana life beyond the music, beaches and faded colonial architecture of the tourist brochures.
However, it was Padura’s 2009 masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Dogs, that won him international fame. With Tolstoyan sweep, this historical novel tells the chilling story of the exile of Leon Trotsky, and of Ramón Mercader, who assassinated him in Mexico in 1940. That this withering critique of Stalinism also won Cuba’s National Literature Prize demonstrates both Padura’s literary skill and his political agility in the face of potential Communist party censors.
“It is a fine line,” Padura tells me when we arrive at the restaurant. Wearing a spotless white T-shirt and trousers, he settles his stocky frame at the quiet corner table we picked. “You do not need to exaggerate how difficult things are here, reality is hard enough. At the same time, if you don’t mention those difficulties, you do a disservice to reality.”
Our current location is luxurious, far from the squalid Havana of the Conde books, with its crumbling houses, broken-down lifts and dirty streets. The restaurant is called Divino, and is one of the privately owned eateries, of varying quality, that have mushroomed in Cuba lately, especially under the US’s now-partially reversed detente and President Raúl Castro’s also-stalled reform drive.
This one has red tablecloths, uniformed waiters and a terraced view of lush grounds. It even has a wine cellar. I suspect it is not Padura’s first choice — although it is near-deserted tonight and therefore discreet — nor would it be Conde’s. The detective often criticises the luxury and shine of easy money you sometimes see in modern Cuba. Is that well-off stranger an entrepreneur done good, or only an apparatchik with connections? Few things are what they first seem.
Padura’s latest book, The Transparency of Time, to be published in January, develops the theme of Cuba’s widening social divisions. It sees Conde chasing a stolen 13th-century statuette of a black Virgin Mary, and takes him from Havana’s poorest corners to its richest — “much more luxurious than here”, he says with a sweep of his hand. The book “explores the relationship between man and history . . . how man is formed by history, and malformed”. He grimaces.
A bow-tied waiter arrives, and uncorks the first of two bottles of red wine I have brought with me from Miami. We declare it delicious. Padura gets cigarettes from his utility belt; I follow suit. “Oh good,” he says. We smoke and examine the menus with care.
Divino Calle Rafael No 50, Mantilla, La Habana, Cuba
Bottled water 2.50 pesos
Black beans 3 pesos
Mixed salad 2 pesos
Tostones 1.50 pesos
White rice 1.50 pesos
Grilled chicken supreme 6 pesos
Roast rabbit 6 pesos
Coffee x 2 2 pesos
Dulce de tres leches 4 pesos
Total 28.50 pesos (£21)
(Plus two bottles Cave du Tain from Miami airport duty free, $35)
Eating has an important place in Padura’s books. This is not because of hunger per se — “Cuba is probably the only Latin American country where nobody dies of hunger” — but rather because of the perennial uncertainty of when or what Cubans will eat next. This neurosis is born of decades of rationing, empty supermarket shelves, and the dismally frequent response when searching for basic goods: “No hay” — there isn’t any.
“Conde and his friends call it the ‘camel philosophy’,” Padura says. “If you invite Cubans to eat at a restaurant like this, and ask them what they think of the food, they usually don’t reply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but how much they ate. A judgment of quality is swapped for quantity.” It’s a characteristic Padura comment: precise and fully formed, critical yet respectful.
We opt for plenty, too. For the centre of the table we order tostones, the fried green plantains that are a Caribbean staple, a mixed salad, and dishes of white rice and black beans. For a main course, Leonardo orders grilled chicken. I choose roast rabbit. Padura’s journey from a peripheral Havana neighbourhood to global stardom is remarkable. He and his wife Lucía, 58 — to whom he dedicates all his books and who collaborates on his film scripts — are both members of what he has called the “gullible generation”. They came of age with the revolution, believing in Fidel’s vision of a socialist future that dogma assured them would arrive.
His father, the owner of a small shop, was a Mason, and his mother a Catholic. Both inculcated Padura with important ethical principles, but “I grew up far from the world of books”, he says. He wanted to study journalism, but instead read philology at the University of Havana. He worked briefly as a journalist at Juventud Rebelde, the communist youth paper, and reported on the war in Angola.
His break — wrong to call it lucky — came after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Cuba was plunged into the so-called “Special Period” of the 1990s, a time of economic crisis and extreme rationing. Padura was made editor of a magazine that stopped publishing during the crisis, a situation that left him with a modest salary but no real work. Instead, he wrote.
His first Conde book was published abroad in 1991, after rejection at home. His second, published in 1994, won a national prize. Words poured out of him — novels, screenplays, journalism, and a semi-fictional life of José María Heredia, the romantic Cuban poet.
He won international literary prizes, most helpfully, in 1995, from the Café Gijón in Madrid. With its $16,000 prize — a fortune in Cuba, given the average state wage of $20 a month — Padura bought his car.
“I may not be the best Cuban writer of my generation, but I am the hardest-working,” Padura says. “When we got back from Spain this week from a literary festival, we arrived at 11pm. At 5am, I was back at work. I am obsessive.”
The comment summons an image of Padura as a tireless tropical Hephaestus hammering-out literary filigree in his study above the garage.
The food arrives, and with it the restaurant’s owner, Yoandra, a striking woman in her mid-forties. “Distinguido!” she exclaims, her hands fluttering in front of her, painted fingernails flashing. “Where’s my book?!”
Padura laughs as Yoandra plonks herself down at the table. I ask her why she set up such an apparently deluxe restaurant so far from Havana’s fashionable districts. “Oh, we get lots of visitors; tour buses come,” she says.
“Me and my husband, we only set it up to fund our community . . . We feed 50 pensioners every day,” she claims. “I am very neighbourly minded, just like him!” She points a red-tipped finger at Padura. “Please, enjoy your food,” she says, getting up to go. We do.
Padura’s success abroad — including a four-film Netflix adaptation of the Conde books called Four Seasons in Havana — has brought him the protection of fame, but also the burden of Cuban prominence. As he wrote in a tongue-in-cheek essay entitled, “I’d like to be Paul Auster”, this mantle requires him to be a supposed expert on politics (naturally), but also economics, agronomy and religion. In short: a “guru [who] must be able to predict the future”.
I ask about the present instead. In June, Donald Trump reversed some of the relaxing of the US embargo that Barack Obama began in 2014. US visitors had started to flock to the island as scheduled commercial flights operated for the first time in half a century, and small Cuban businesses flourished. Padura’s answer is personal rather than political: “The embargo has been a nightmare. Obama was a passing dream. Now we are back to the nightmare again.”
I wonder if he has ever considered living elsewhere. Over the past 60 years most of Cuba’s best writers have moved abroad, eventually, and the country is currently bleeding talent, be that in baseball, medicine or music. Yet Mantilla is central to Padura’s creative process. The Man Who Loved Dogs signs off with the words, “Always in Mantilla”, and the neighbourhood is a source of inspiration, like the water Padura sometimes carries from a well his great-grandfather dug there.
The question seems to hit a nerve. “It’s complex. In theory, a writer can do his work wherever. But if you lose the umbilical cord, that has an impact. It’s not a fixed law, but I’ve seen it,” he replies. “I could possibly have a better material life, I don’t know. But if I lose the memory and daily contact with changing reality . . . ” He lets the thought tail off; then rallies. “I always seek to do that which I consider most important, namely: my right to live in Cuba, to write in Cuba, and to write about Cuba. Because I am, above all, a Cuban writer.”
We open the second bottle. Our plates are cleared. We both feel sated and a bit fuzzy. I ask Padura about censorship. “It’s very arbitrary,” he replies. “The fourth Cuban edition of The Man Who Loved Dogs was censored, it wasn’t distributed, but not the first, second or third.” What about self-censorship, the most pernicious kind of all? “You can self-censor for lots of reasons that are not political: genre, culture, taste,” he responds adroitly. “In all my books I have always said all I wanted or needed to say.”
I ask about The Man Who Loved Dogs. What did he want or need to say with that book? Many Cuban émigrés have told me they are amazed that such a damning description of Cuba could be written by an author still living on the island.
People have been dreaming of an Arcadia always. Under what social or economic model can it be built? I don’t know. I am not an economist.But that is the world I want to live in.
“Very simple,” Padura replies immediately. “Under Stalinism, a great dream of the 20th century died . . . a great historic possibility was betrayed. If you ask me what society I prefer, without thinking I say: ‘One with maximum democracy and maximum liberty.’ That’s the utopia. But utopia, by definition, does not exist. So we will never arrive there. Still, that society began to be built under socialism, only it lost its way. It’s great assassin was Stalin, because he built the model of socialism that has existed ever since.”
I say that he sounds to me like a Marxist who does not believe in Marxism. Padura laughs. “I’m a humanist, and a leftist, and I am unorthodox. But people have been dreaming of an Arcadia always, and you have to keep dreaming it. Under what social or economic model can it be built? I don’t know. I am not an economist. But I am a citizen, and that is the world I want to live in.”
I roll back in my chair. His answer is the kind of carefully modulated response you often hear from prominent Cubans, marked by a Stasi-like past where ideological infractions could lead to punishment. Twenty years ago, dining with the FT would almost certainly have been impossible.
For dessert, we share a tres leches, a light and sugary milk cake, and order two espressos — sweet and hot. I ask about the future. Cuba’s closest ally, Venezuela, is in chaos. Fidel died in November. Cuban regulations on wealth and property are tightening again before Raúl steps down as president next February. Everything looks bleak.
Padura’s crystal ball is as foggy as everyone else’s. Yoandra, who has rejoined us, provides perhaps the best image. “It’s like being at the beach when you see a huge wave coming. All you can do is curl up as small and as quiet as you can and wait for it to pass.”
Padura does not suffer from the vanity that often accompanies literary fame in Latin America. Instead, in these days of general egocentricity and megalomania, his down-to-earth attitude is refreshing. When I ask him what he hopes Cuba will become in 10 years, Padura replies simply: “My dream is a country where every Cuban can live from their work. That would resolve many problems . . . even Raúl has said so.”
He pauses. “Everything that I have — a certain literary success, a certain material comfort, some travel, some prestige — comes from my hard work. I am proud of that.” At this, and because his dawn start to tomorrow’s working day is now closer than it should be, we get up to leave.