Saturday, November 10, 2007
To be perfectly honest, after reading the first few pages of Havana Black by Leonardo Padura I hoped the main character, Inspector Mario Conde, might drink himself to death so I wouldn't have to suffer through 200 more pages. It probably has the most morose beginning to a novel I have ever read, and not having read the first book in the series, Havana Red, I had no attachment to "The Count" as they call Conde. Not one to give up easily I kept going and once the Count described his new and last case as "tasty" I knew the book was going to be good, but I didn't know it would be that good.
The story begins as the Havana police department has recently cleaned house of its corrupt officers; Conde resigns due to loyalty to his boss, but is asked back to solve one last case before his discharge papers will be signed. The case involves a murdered defector who is found floating in the sea, castrated, and throughout the book the sordid past dealings of the victim are uncovered. The fascinating portrait of a man who took advantage of the government's "re-appropriation" of confiscated property after the Revolution unravels some of the mystery as to how communism was adapted in a Latin American country, a great primer for those who don't know much about communism in Cuba. My hunch as to the killer's identity for once was right but that doesn't mean the mystery was predictable, rather the reader has a chance to form his or her own opinion amongst the suspects and the unexpected plot twists.
The real gem of this novel, however, is the main character, the Count. Mr. Padura shows us how complicated it was to have grown up during the Revolution, how the dreams of young men were shaped and changed by the events that unfolded. The Count longs for old times in some sense but also for a better future where he can rid himself of the demons he has gathered in his 36 years. The passage about his mother and the four kisses they shared each year until she died, and his regret at not having been more affectionate with her was beautiful and sad. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the Count's "family" of friends and their support for each other since boyhood.
The writing style of this book can be difficult at times; there are no chapters to tell you when one thought or scene is ending, and the author sometimes launches into a description of an event or person that lasts a page or two before the reader can fully understand who or what he is describing. But once the cast of characters is set, and the scenes known, everything begins to fall into place and the book is not only worth reading as a mystery, but as a poetic look into complex and humble lives.
Posted by Ana Dziengel at 3:06 PM