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Havana by Padura

During his recent presentation, “The City and the Writer,” Cuban author Leonardo Padura reflected on the fundamental role that cities play in shaping the literary universe of writers. The author, a Habanero from the Mantilla neighborhood, said his novels are urban because they couldn’t be anything else: “There is a striking sense of belonging in Cuba. Inside the country there is a feeling of confinement; outside it, nostalgia.”

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: EFE, Latinstock, Grupo Experimental de Cine Universitario (GECU)

The city as a space for memories. The city as the cradle of nostalgia. The city as that imaginary being that shapes us, our thinking, and our character. We may not be fully aware of it, but cities shape their inhabitants. Or perhaps it is the inhabitants who configure the souls of their cities.

Leonardo Padura was born in 11955, in Havana, on the Caribbean island of Cuba. At the time, Havana was a city of neon, cabarets, and eclectic mansions looking out over Paseo del Prado, and opulent new neighborhoods like Miramar, El Vedado, and Siboney.

It was the Havana of Violeta del Río, the woman who sang boleros at an obscure joint in La Rampa with her “small, sultry, husky” voice from behind the “incandescent waterfall” of her hair. It was a Havana that Padura had to imagine, since the Revolution arrived in 1959 and with it, “communist chants and insistent summons to battle and victory.”

He grew up in this time filled with Che, sugar harvests, and Martí. Everything fell apart when he was an adult in the 1990s. The Soviet Union collapsed, and Cuba entered the so-called “special period.” Padura has noted in various interviews that it was then that he began to write like a madman in order to not go mad. But he was already a writer: since 1980, he had been writing as a journalist for the literary journal El Caimán Barbudo (The Bearded Crocodile) and the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth).

The 1990s saw the emergence of Mario Conde, that already legendary character, who became known around the world for his inveterate pessimism, his epic drunken binges, and his dreams of being a writer in a reality that “condemns” him to investigate the frauds and lies of a society that is presented as pure, but is actually rotten. At least that’s how Padura saw it. Does he still see it that way? “I think that no one should be able to take away a Cuban’s right to come home. A homeland is more than a State. As Martí said: ‘A homeland must be built by everyone, with humanity.’”

The Cuban writer was in Panama City a few weeks ago to lead a seminar on the “dangerous relationship” between films and literature. During his visit, Padura also gave a presentation, during which he reflected on a writer’s connection to the city, that space where he lives, and the window through which he perceives and understands the world. The author of the so-called “Conde Series” does not hide his sorrow for the loss of the utopia that began to crumble at the time he started writing literature.

“Anguished journalists ask me why I have stayed…” There is a hint of an answer in something Conde says in the miniseries Cuatro estaciones en La Habana (Four Seasons in Havana): “I’m just horridly nostalgic.”

In the darkness of the salon where he converses with his audience, he declares: “Despite the sorrows, I am simply a Cuban writer, and I need Cuba to write.” What does it mean to be a Cuban writer? To be the successor of José María Heredia, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Alejo Carpentier. Profoundly rooted in José Martí. Heir to exile and diaspora. “Havana is my city and it engenders feelings of belonging and sadness. The streets, the architecture, the boardwalk, the columns, the stench… A city that is beginning to seem unfamiliar to me… Perhaps because of age, perhaps because the city is changing.”

The Havana boardwalk is quite likely one of the Caribbean city’s best-known panoramas. The first section was built in the early 20th century, and postcards depict it as a setting for romance. But Padura says that the boardwalk is also “a stone snake,” a wall that serves as a daily reminder that Cuba is an island. “It is the line that marks the beginning, or the end, of Havana. The beginning for those who wish to leave, the end, for those of us who decide to live here.”

To live there. To be from a place. For Reinaldo, a character in Adelaida y el poeta (Adelaida and the Poet), this means looking at the cracks that the damp has spread across the ceiling of his room, the room where Belkis, naked and warm, sleeps. He has not been able to repair the cracks because he can’t get the slabs and cement needed to fix them, even though he doggedly sits down to work at writing every day… What are Padura’s cracks?

More than a Habanero, the Cuban writer says he is a Mantillian, a son of Mantilla, the neighborhood where he has always lived. “Being born and living there has forged a sense of belonging. More than Cuban and Habanero, I’m a Mantillian. It is my background, the source I draw on to write.” It is a background that places him on the outskirts of Havana, rather than in the center, Vedado, or the provinces. It is a perspective that has allowed him to observe and feel the changes that Mantilla and its inhabitants have experienced over time. That is why, he admits, his characters are not just Habaneros but almost always Mantillians; it is the world he knows.

Padura says that Havana, and all of Cuba, has become a “post-post-Soviet” country as the years have gone by. One different from the one of his youth. “We lived in other conditions, we had other dreams. Now, the generation that followed the special period are youths who look for individual solutions, and that solution involves exile. That is a terrible wrench for Cuba.”

These feelings may be what make Mario Conde, his most celebrated character, so pessimistic. Conde drowns his contradictions in alcohol every night, only to succumb to love the following day. He admits that he almost always does what he does not want to do, and he never does what he wants to do. He is a “self-indulgent man” who clings to friendship, truth, and his city. A man with the soul of a writer who, like Padura, cannot be anything but Cuban, Habanero, and Mantillian.

___________________________________________________________________________________________Padura has worked as a scriptwriter, journalist, and critic. The Mario Conde detective series brought him international renown for the titles: Pasado perfecto (Havana Blue), Vientos de Cuaresma (Havana Gold), Máscaras (Havana Red), Paisaje de otoño (Havana Black), Adiós, Hemingway, La neblina del ayer (Havana Fever), and La cola de la serpiente (Grab a Snake by the Tail). He is also the author of La novela de mi vida (The Story of My Life) and El hombre que amaba los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs), along with the story collection Aquello estaba deseando ocurrir (It Had to Happen). In 2012, Padura received Cuba’s National Literature Prize, and the City of Zaragoza awarded him its International Prize for Historical Novels for Herejes (Heretics).