The Transparency of Time
Leonardo Padura, trans. from the Spanish by Anna Kushner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Dressed in the grungy trappings of a crime drama, this literary tour-de-force from Padura (Grab a Snake by the Tail) offers a colorful cultural history of Cuba and the island’s historical contact with Europe that helped to shape its people’s religious beliefs. Detective Mario Conde, an aging former cop, is hired by his old school friend, Bobby, to recover a statue of the Virgin of Regla, a Black madonna integral to Bobby’s worship of Santeria. The statue was stolen by Bobby’s lover, Raydel, but when Raydel and a confederate turn up murdered and high-end art dealers begin mingling with the suspects, Conde realizes Bobby’s statue has more than just sentimental value. As Conde’s adventures lead him into increasingly dangerous waters, an alternate narrative thread follows the statue’s ownership back through time to the Crusades and the Knights Templar—a pedigree it shares with the eponymous statue of The Maltese Falcon, thus referencing the Bogart films adored by Conde. (In an inspired bar scene midway through, Conde, after receiving a lump on the back of the head while interviewing one of Raydel’s associates, imagines he’s Bogart while ordering a drink with the lift of a finger.) The author forges a wondrous connection between the past and present through his characters’ faith in the statue’s occult powers and through a vivid portrait of a decayed Havana, where vestiges of opulence glimmer in the ravages of time. Padura’s novel will appeal equally to genre fans and lovers of literary thrillers.