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   The Havana Quartet, the crime novels of Leonardo Padura

broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and all published in the UK by Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99 each.

In 1934, H G Welles interviewed Stalin.

‘It seems,’ concluded Welles, ‘that I am more left wing than you.’

In the interview with Welles, Uncle Joe is impressive.  He is not a shallow pretender like Tony Blair.  Stalin may have been an evil monster who traduced revolutionary Marxism to suit his ambition but no one should doubt that he understood the theory.  If Stalin is surprisingly able when confronted by Welles then Castro is dazzling in the interview with Ignacio Ramonet that constitutes the biography, My Life.  He debates theory and without effort quotes statistics about an economy and society whose every aspect he managed.

In the Havana Quartet novels, which can now be heard on Radio 4, there is little debate about Marxism, the application or the dreams.   Instead, Padura creates a mood of disappointment and failure, deceit that feeds from delusion, a world corrupted by obedience to a supreme authority and control.  This corruption is not balanced against the gratuitous decadence of western society but it does not need to be.  Padura measures the distance between what is said in Cuba and what happens and he is disappointed

The Havana novels all feature the detective, Mario Conde.  The detective has a sexual appetite.  He also wanted to be a writer but abandoned his ambition. Padura has said that he likes writers and bohemians, ‘crazy people’.  It seems that some human beings need strange sex, and some need to create art.  People cannot be reduced to the revolutionary heroes demanded by Stalinism or the economic machines required by capitalism.  Society should accept, support and encourage rather than merely demand. 

Crime exists in Havana, and Detective Conde is obliged to investigate.  The crimes in the books are serious, murder and robbery, but Havana does not have a criminal underworld to match those of western cities.  This is no consolation for Conde because the detective encounters a world that officially does not exist.  This alone reduces him and everyone else.

The novels succeed not because they add to the political understanding of how a Marxist society operates.   The Havana world Padura reveals is exotic and surprising.  The exotic has a dark edge that instead of providing simple relief produces secret needs that lead to dark conclusions. 

In his ambitious masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Dogs, Padura insists Cuba is modelled on Stalinist society and that, whatever the merits and good intentions of Castro, it has produced moral and economic poverty.  In that book the crime is political.  In the Havana novels the crimes are what we see from a street corner. 

Despite his disillusionment with post revolutionary Cuba, Padura has remained in the country.  He works as a journalist, and, not surprisingly, his column refers to the street corner.

The Radio 4 adaptations have typical BBC strengths.  They are measured, nuanced and efficient.  But if you want to catch the flavour and contradictions of Havana then either go there or read the novels of Leonardo Padura. 

 

By Howard Jackson

 

All are available from Bitter Lemon Press.