Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Latin American Noir

I've just finished Leonardo Padura's Havana Red, published by Bitter Lemon Press (UK). Padura (also published in English under the name Leonardo Padura Fuentes) is a Cuban author whose aims are literary as well as detective-genre-oriented. Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde of the Cuban police struggles with his own identity as a person and a cop, through a case involving a murdered transvestite who was from a family of privilege under the Castro regime. Homosexuality and transvestism are explored extensively, to Conde's discomfort, as necessary to understand the case, and Conde is at the same time under threat from an internal, politically motivated investigation of his department. Havana Red, like the Brazilian police novels of Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza, is more concerned with milieu, character, and language than with plot or detection, so if you're looking for a thriller, this isn't it. But the plodding, systematic activity of a policeman (and one with a conscience) is ann ideal way to explore the Cuban culture. Havana Red is haunted by Cuban literature--explicitly in the many references to the gay playwright Virgilio Piñera, and in a more subtle way to the comic, nostalgic, and despairing voice of the great Cuban emigre novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. and like the police novels of Yasmina Khadra, there is an explicitly bleak portrait of a political situation. But the novel manages with all that literary and political weight to be an entertaining novel, and a quirky take on the noir tradition. Padura (or Padura Fuentes) has one other novel in English (Adios Hemingway) that deals with the Hemingway legacy (and with Mario Conde's exile from the police). Another much-praised novel of Cuba (José Latour's Outcast) deals with noir material, but I for one found Latour's narrator and main character to be too self-absorbed to be efffective as a noir "hero" or anti-hero, even though the events of the character's marginalization in Cuba and his flight to Miami (not to mention his search for revenge) are the stuff of noir. Padura's novels are a much better noir portrait of Havana than Latour's of either Havana or Miami (in my opinion).

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