He received me on Monday in a quiet apartment in Mantilla from where he has written almost all his work. On a polished table he put cold water and strong coffee for both of us. He lit a cigarette whose smoke, luckily, chose as its victim the bust of Cervantes resting on a nearby sideboard. And began to answer my questions.
Maybe, I would never have decided to interview Leonardo Padura had I not read La Novela de mi Vida (The Novel of my Life). Up until that moment, the two pieces I already knew were enough to admire his clean prose and skillful police frameworks, but not much more.
So, I discovered this novel and found myself obligated to track down (just like investigator Mario Conde) where its author lived. For a character like Salinger there are some writers who, after reading their work, you just wish you could call them. Since I don’t have his telephone number, I decided to travel 498 miles from my native Bayamo to the Cuban capital, knock on his door and say: I need to interview you.
It so happens that The Novel of my Life should already be on the must-read list of every reader who thinks himself Cuban. Or one who lives or studies the historical truth inside this, our country, made up of water and sand. Because coming to find out the written novel of this immense and suffered man who was the poet Jose Maria Heredia is the best way to understand a country that, two centuries later, has not yet ceased to repeat similar tragedies in the lives of millions of other children.
With great precision, Leonardo Padura, a well experienced writer, wove two different stories that is one at the end. First: the one of the great poet of the Niagara, a man without real nationality that against all logic profoundly identified himself as Cuban (when he died, at 35 years of age, Jose Maria Heredia had lived in five different countries and only 6 of those years in Cuba), and he might have been the one to inaugurate the so-called Cuban tradition of suffering exile and dying defeated by nostalgia. Second: the one of a fictitious character known as Fernando Terry, who in the ’90’s returns from the exile (to visit for a few weeks) in search of a past from which he was never able to detach.
If you think the story of this contemporary Cuban — forced to migrate in the Mariel Boatlift due to the intolerance, the fear and the lies — as melancholic, you will be frightened by the first person tale that Heredia, revived by Padura, tells us about the time in his life when, mad by pain and frustration, as he himself called it, the novel of his life.
A life made up of love of poetry and the freedom of his oppressed country, of defense towards a Cubanness in the making that could not yet be defined, but it could be felt. A life thrown to the fiercest of exiles by the despot who governed at the time: Miguel Tacón, the tyrant of the day, who just like so many of them, gave himself the right to decide who lived inside the island, who died, and who should leave it. Cursed be the stubbornness of the dictators who manage their nations as if they were their own homes.
The same poet whose ode to Niagara today rests in a tombstone right in front of the waterfall, also inaugurated a habit that we have not been able to erase from this beautiful homeland in all these years: to suffer from the accusations and the betrayal of a false friend that would use the misfortunes of Heredia to climb towards success in a Cuba sick from corruption. The story takes his name: Domingo del Monte. But about this, we couldn’t care less.
The alarming thing to recognize is that, behind the ability of Leonardo Padura, the reader is warned of too much freshness, too much proximity to his own reality with this novel that, according to what the narrator tells us, is one of so many of our lives.
My interview lasted a little over an hour. The agile, well-argued responses from this Havana native writer, filled up a text of many pages which I proudly plan to include in a book that I am just now concluding.
Today, two weeks past that encounter with Leonardo Padura, after looking around in disbelief and remembering the ordeal of the exiled Heredia, I have not yet figured out how to detach myself from the question that the The Novel of Many Lives left me with as a harsh gift: Could it be that our beautiful island will forever condemn its children to escape from her in search of protection and a piece of happiness?
Translated by: Angelica Betancourt