The circumstances of my own life have fueled my attraction to Leonardo Padura’s last two novels and led to my translation of them. When I first read The Man Who Loved Dogs—his sprawling novel about Trotsky’s years in exile, and the Soviet plot to recruit and train a Spanish Civil War combatant to kill him in Mexico City—I was a few years out from a period of having studied Russian intensely and a visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I had been trying to understand the lives and experiences of a whole generation of Cubans who grew up in the Soviet satellite, as several friends and family members of mine did, as I might have myself had my parents not left Cuba in the mid-1960s. That I felt taxed and lonely by the effort of making my way through Moscow as a solo traveler who did not, in this instance, pick up any friends along the way, perhaps predisposed me to feel a certain sense of compassion for Ramón Mercader in the Moscow-based chapters toward the end of the novel. Or maybe it was just that Padura is so wily about making you care about characters that could otherwise be reviled.
The fact is that I felt, immediately, that this was the novel I needed to translate and I happily threw myself into the project of The Man Who Loved Dogs. Padura’s Heretics appealed to me for different reasons. On the surface, it is a novel about the tides of history and how large events and movements affect people on an individual level, a theme that is universal. Specifically, it spoke to me and my younger self, who first started traveling to Cuba in 1999, when it wasn’t acceptable in certain Cuban exile circles to admit even an interest in visiting the island, let alone actually going there. My travels were a form of heresy, an activity imbued with a sense of moral ambiguity that made me uncomfortable to try to explain.
In those years, 1999–2002, when I traveled to Cuba three times, I sometimes found myself lying about the fact that I had been there and listened to Silvio Rodríguez, a pro-Revolution Cuban folk singer, in secret. I felt tremendous angst over the fact that my favorite song of his was one called “Playa Girón” (an event known as the “Bay of Pigs” to Americans). In it, Silvio calls upon his “comrades in history,” using the term compañero, one I also used to ask strangers simple questions on the island, but would never, ever say on the streets of Miami. Silvio asks his compañeros how unsparing truth should be, how far we should go to uphold the truth. And the answer, for me, was complicated.
The characters in Heretics all grapple with this question of truth—and on which side of history they see themselves. One character, Daniel Kaminsky, reevaluates his stance periodically: after the life-altering circumstances of losing his closest family members, then of going into exile for a second time, and finally of being diagnosed with a serious illness. Elias Ambrosius Montalbo de Ávila, a Jewish artist in seventeenth-century Amsterdam who defies his community to learn and practice his trade in secret, has moments in which his convictions waver. The teenaged Judith in modern Cuba disappears from the society she feels smothered by to uphold her own truth. The Cuban detective Mario Conde—who has appeared in many of Padura’s previous novels, and has now been brought to the screen in the Cuban-Spanish TV production Four Seasons in Havana—is tasked with unraveling it all and questions the very notion that anything resembling an objective truth can ever exist. And in the background, Padura paints pictures of societies that are also in flux, with different factions clamoring to set the prevailing attitudes and mores that will shape those societies.
In the eighteen years that have elapsed between my first trip to Cuba and my most recent one, I have become more open about my travels, but still guarded and conflicted about the emotions and political musings they provoke in me. How to explain, for example, that I still don’t feel comfortable putting a copy of the Norberto Fuentes book I translated and published in 2010, the satirical The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, in my suitcase when I travel to the island, no matter how dead and buried Fidel is? That my mind runs through the emotional costs and possible compromises of every artistic venture I consider due to the fact that Cuban culture, both on and off the island, seems to shun the idea of simply saying “I disagree with you”? Disagreements become personal, political; your entire life and character must come into question and be analyzed, dissected, and torn apart. In this respect, all of the characters in Padura’s Heretics are as authentically Cuban as their author, whether they were born in Eastern Europe or Holland. We are defined by the choices we make as well as by the lies we tell in order to live our lives in real or imagined freedom. A book like Heretics serves to remind us of this precarious balance.
Leonardo Padura was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1955. A novelist, journalist, and critic, he is the author of several novels, including The Man Who Loved Dogs (FSG, 2014); two volumes of short stories; and several nonfiction collections. His novels featuring the detective Mario Conde have been translated into many languages and have won literary prizes around the world. He lives in Cuba.
Anna Kushner was born in Philadelphia and first traveled to Cuba in 1999. She has translated the novels of Guillermo Rosales, Norberto Fuentes, Gonçalo M. Tavares, and Leonardo Padura.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: