Havana Red by Leonardo Padura
Translated by Peter Bush
Bitter Lemon Press 2005 (first published in Spanish in 1997)
The Havana Quartet, of which this novel is the first, is a highly regarded contribution to the crime-fiction genre. The story is at first straightforward: a young man is found murdered in the woods outside the town of Havana, a well-known night-time pick-up haunt for homosexuals and others outside the mainstream who are unloved by the government. The man, a “carnivalesque creature”, is wearing a red dress and is made up like a woman. He’s been killed by being strangled by a red scarf which is still tightly wrapped round his neck. Oddly, he seems to have put up no resistance to his murder.
The policeman who is given the case is Inspector Mario Conde, whose father was a Count in the old regime of Cuba but who now lives in relative poverty alongside almost all other citizens of this anomalous island. His closest companion is an old schoolfriend Carlos, a.k.a. “Skinny”, nowadays an obese man who is wheelchair-bound after his service in the army’s Angolan campaign. The two men cope together with the extreme heat and the trials and tribulations of living in a country where there isn’t much of anything and where the laws are oppressive.
The murder victim is called Alexis Arayan, the son of well-to-do parents. His mother is devastated, and his father, a UN ambassador, is called back from his current overseas mission. Conde soon finds out that Alexis was not living at home but with a playwright called Alberto Marques, at first presented as a decadent, slug-like person who Conde suspects had influenced the young man into a world of shady transsexuals and drug-induced excess. Conde repeatedly refers to himself as a red-blooded male, and is revolted by the concept of homosexuality, transvestism and all other aberrations of human nature, as he sees them. Marques is a patient man, and almost despite himself, Conde finds himself willing to learn about these practices in order to find out more about the murder victim and how he might have died. Part of the novel is about Conde’s journey of discovery towards a more enlightened perspective rather than his instinctive revulsion of “deviants”. When he was a young man he wanted to be a writer. He wrote a short story but while it was in the press at a magazine, the publication was shut down by the government for being anti-Communist. Conde never wrote again, instead becoming a policeman. Now, as he becomes more open-minded under Marques’s guidance, his muse returns to him – all highly allegorical of the country itself. The story of Marques and Conde is heavily influenced by the Cuban writer Virgilio Pinera, for many years banned in Cuba, and whose play Electra Garrigo, based on the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon and his family, forms an integral part of the plot (the dead man’s red dress was worn in the play). Padura himself is an advocate of Pinera’s work.
Conde spends most of the novel distracted into these avenues, allowing himself to attend a transvestite’s party and picking up a young woman there. In the meantime, his professional and focused sergeant pursues a more conventional approach to investigating the crime, asking witnesses and suspects pertinent questions and so on. Conde does return to the case near the end, and does not take long to nail it down.
I have to say I didn’t like this book much because of its relentless sexism, objectifying all young females. Any woman under the age of 60 (mothers and old servants are tolerated so long as they just cook and keep out of the way) is treated with contempt by the male characters, including in Conde’s fictional work, although I assume that his short story is an allegory with the woman character representing the political repression meted out to the populace.
Although I am no prude so did not mind the very up-front, often very funny, dialogue, I really hated the constant and explicit male-wish-fulfilment sexual aspects. I quite liked all the literary and philosophical digressions, indeed without them the crime would have been solved very quickly and there wouldn’t have been much of a book. I also liked the laconic humour and political manoeuvrings of the police station and force, though there was not enough of this for my taste. The author is interested in doing more than just tell the story of a crime, though, and I liked the many implicit political and social points he is making, and appreciated the literary depth of the book. I am not so sure I could tolerate reading any more of the series. It was all a bit intense and sexist for me, even though I can understand the popularity and plaudits that the series has attracted, on the basis of this first outing. [Correction note - although this is the first of the series to be translated, it is not the first of the series. See comment from Jose Ignacio at the Petrona link below.]