Translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush
I’m delighted to be one of those leading off the blog tour for another of Bitter Lemon Press’s reprints of relatively recent world noir novels. This time we visit Cuba for Havana Fever which was first published in Spanish in 2005, with the English translation in 2009.
Padura, it transpires, wrote four previous novels featuring the protagonist here, Mario Conde. He was a police inspector then, and Padura’s ‘Havana Quartet’ won prizes. Now, in 2003, Conde has been retired for thirteen years and is making a slightly precarious living as an antiquarian bookseller.
In his early days in this new profession, Mario Conde had tried to turn a deaf ear to the stories behind the libraries that fell into his hands. His years as a detective had forced him to live surrounded by sordid files, but this hadn’t made hm immune to the sorrows of the soul and, when he got his way and left the police force, he discovered painfully that the dark side of life still pursued him. Ever library for sale was a romantic novel with an unhappy ending, the drama of which didn’t depend on the quantity or quality of books being sacrificed, but on the paths along which the volumes had reached that particular house and the terrible logic now sending them to be slaughtered in the marketplace.
Mario prefers to be a supplier to other booksellers, a prospecting wholesaler rather than active vendor. He’s largely content to be a middle man, he doesn’t have to maintain large stocks of books including harder to sell volumes.
As the novel begins, he has found a road he’s not been down before, and a mansion that has seen better days. It gives him that frisson of excitement, he’s had a bad run of a few weeks, and there could be a goldmine in the library there…
The owner of the mansion, the widower Alcides Montes de Oca family had abandoned it in 1969 when the Cuban regime started taking over American companies. He went north with his two children, leaving the mansion to his housekeeper to look after, and she pledged to maintain it with her son, and later daughter. The Montes de Oca family have not returned nor claimed any of the remaining treasures in the mansion including the contents of the amazing library which their mother had so proudly maintained over the years. Now she is in her nineties, and her children, Dionisio and Amalia, who have been the books’ guardians, are hard up since Dionisio had to stop work after a heart attack, ‘we either sell the books or gradually starve to death’ Dionisio explains to Mario.
Although they don’t strictly own the books, Conde is not going to let them starve, and gives them all the cash he has for a selection he knows will sell. He extracts a promise that they’ll not sell the rest to anyone else – he will return for more with a colleague. The next day he brings his oddly nicknamed friend Yoyi Pigeon, a bookseller, with him to sort out more and, honest chap that he is, to Yoyi’s disbelief he also makes a pile of books that ought to be given (or sold) to a museum as too historically important.
What Conde didn’t expect though was to be drawn into a mystery. He finds a newspaper cutting about Violeta del Rio, a bolero singer from the 1950s who had disappeared mysteriously. Why was this cutting in one of Alcides’ books? Did the owner of the library have a connection to Violeta? Once a policeman, always a policeman, and Conde is pleased to find a subject to research. Violeta has left little trace, and only made one record, but Conde with Yoyi’s help gradually manages to tease out some information and get a copy of her record, but it leads to the darker side of Cuba.
Then, at around halfway through the book’s 286 pages, a murder occurs and Conde’s gradual purchase of the Montes de Oca library is paused as he and Yoyi are suspects. I shall say no more about the plot.
I soon grew to like Mario Conde who, in his retirement, enjoys nothing more than good food and good wine with friends (when he can afford it), reminding me of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano in that respect. His friends, Yoyi, Rabbit and girlfriend Tamara amongst others are good fun, Yoyi being the prominent mate being more fully realised than the others. The other star of the novel is of course Havana itself, in particular the more troubled side in the novel’s present day, but there is a flavour of the decadence of the 1950s during the last days of Batista too.
The narrative is split into two halves – one for the song on the A side of Violeta’s record ‘Be gone from me‘, one for the B side, ‘You’ll remember me‘. I particularly liked that touch, with those prophetic song titles. Padura also tantalises the reader by interspersing some love letters – we don’t know who they’re sent to, but they’re all from Nena, who is obviously missing someone. It will all become clear, although it took me a good while to cotton on.
As I also found with the Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro, whose reissued Betty Boo I read last month, it takes a while to get into the Latin American style of writing which is characteristically quite wordy. The author has an obvious love for classic Cuban literature, given the number of tomes that get a mention as Conde scours the Montes de Oca library. But given Conde’s obvious barely repressed glee at having found this treasure trove, perhaps we can forgive the author for spending much time naming the books and editions (I have no idea whether they are real or not, mind!). Havana Fever is a slowburn mystery indeed, but no less enjoyable for that, if you don’t mind a rambling mystery rather than tautly plotted murder. It’s almost more of a character study of the older Mario Conde rather than a crime thriller.
I would be keen to visit the younger Mario Conde of the Havana Quartet, Havana Blue in which we meet Tamara, being the first book chronologically (but not the first to be translated), followed by Gold, Red, and Black – they’re all in print, translated by Peter Bush for Bitter Lemon Press.
Source: Review copy – thank you! Bitter Lemon Press paperback, 286 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)