Thursday, August 10, 2006
A Cuban cop and socialist noir
Havana Black is the 4th of Leonardo Padura's novels about Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde of Havana (it's a tetralogy, but there is a 5th novel, Adios Hemingway, published in translation as by Leonardo Padura Fuentes, the author's full name--the 5th novel is different in structure and atmosphere from the other 4). The 3rd novel in the tetralogy has been published as Havana Red--no word on whether the 1st two in this "seasonal" series will make it into English. Havana Black started me wondering about the social setting of noir fiction in general. Surely, noir is a Capitalist form of art. The classic statements of noir relied on greedy capitalists and bureaucrats and on a free-market of crime and morality at street level. But there could hardly be a more "noir" atmosphere than the Communist Cuba of Padura's novels. Here the deprivation of the common people is enforced by socialist structural mandates rather than not-so-benign neglect (as would be true in democratic noir. But the darkness is even more enveloping, along with the pessimisn and despair--there's a hurricane coming and Conde keeps wishing for it to wipe things clean, an ongoing metaphor that overlaps the end of the novel, with the hurricane just arriving. Conde, this time, is investigating the murder of a former Cuban (now emigre) bureaucrat who had been in charge of distributing the property expropriated from the fleeing Cuban middle class after the revolution. The decadence of morals that was the theme of Havana Red here shifts into a decadence of politics, with the expropriators expropriating the state's newly stolen property. The consequeneces of that decadence are still reverberating in the Cuba of recent decades, in Padura's novel (originaly published in Spain in 1998). Padura's language, though, relies on a rich and allusive indirection rather than the terse, stripped-down language of classic pulp-era noir. Padura is often nostalgic and poetic in his evocation of Cuban despair. He is no less pessimistic about Miami's Little Havana, as well. His detective, his Cuba, and his noir fiction are all stuck in a politiical trap: on the one hand the decaying Cuba of the embargo and on the other hand the soul-less emigre community of fat, rich Miami. In perhaps a symbol of the situation, more than in a clue to the crime, the former Cuban, former bureaucrat's body is found not only murdered but castrated: perhaps Cuba continues to grab hold of the emigres in just that way, preventing them from moving forward creatively into a new world by their nostalgia for a Cuba that no longer exists (and will not exist even if Fidel is pushed aside, since the past is past). The complex metaphor is echoed in a complex and layered writing style. The novel does not flow easily, in the style of pulp noir, but slowly, in a layered prose that includes history (not only of Cuba's 50-year Communist experiment, but also of the Spanish colonial era, South America in the post-colonial era, and even Chinese history), current social reality (the shortages and difficulties of today's Havana), and the life story of Mario Conde in its Cuban revolutionary context of deprivation and total state control. There are echoes and insinuations of The Maltese Falcon and even adventure novels like King Solomon's Mines, as well as a reflexive joke concerning the main character's inability to conceive of himself as a literary character (and the novel itself rounds off with a reflexive flourish, the Conde tetralogy eating its own tail, so to speak). Ultimately, this novel is about Conde himself, as the representative of a "lost generation" of Cubans who stayed on, neither willing to leave nor endorsing the revolution. The reflexevity, the melancholy, and the rich style of the writing are all in the service of that portrait of a generation.