Cuba · review · Translated

Havana Blue by Leonardo Padura

havana blueHavana Blue by Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush
Bitter Lemon Press, 2007
Written in 1991, originally published in 2000 as Pasado perfecto

 

Mario Conde is a detective in Havana who investigates the disappearance of one of his high school classmates, Rafael Morin, a vice-minister who negotiates international business deals who also happens to be married to a woman whom Conde loved when they were young. The story alternates between the present missing persons investigation in the late 1980s and their time in high school in the 1970s, and Padura spends a great deal of time talking around the question of why Conde joined the police and stayed (he’s a frustrated writer who idolizes Hemingway, but he leaves a university course in psychology to join the police).

I read the book to get a sense of Cuba, and this particular story follows Conde and his group of friends as they go to school and become adults. Conde is a good detective, Morin becomes a superstar in his bureaucratic post, and his other close friends’ stories I will leave you to discover. On the negative side, the actual mystery was not as well-developed for me as the story of Conde and his friends growing up, I was dismayed by Conde’s constant interior monologues about women he lusts after, and sometimes the translation felt clunky to me. When I happen to read a book with such a sexist main character, it’s jarring to me despite the interesting commentary about life in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s.

I refer you to another review in The Game’s Afoot and a profile of Padura in The Independent.

The Havana Quartet is known as Las cuatro estaciones in Spanish, and each takes place in a different season.

  1. Pasado Perfecto published as Havana Blue
  2. Vientos de cuaresma, published as Havana Gold
  3. Máscaras, published as Havana Red
  4. Paisaje de otoño, published as Havana Black
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13 thoughts on “Havana Blue by Leonardo Padura

  1. I was all set to read a book by this author, as I’d like to read his views of Cuba. My views are probably different, but since he lives there, I’d like to read his observations.
    But I came to a screeching halt when I read your comment about the writer’s sexist attitudes. That could dampen my reading of this series. It’s so prevalent, and I’m so over this.

    1. I brought it up because the sexism was so pervasive in this book, and, honestly, I think it was especially grating because the translation felt a bit off as Conde rhapsodized about certain women. There is so much critical praise for this series, but I haven’t seen a lot of reviews flag my concern: Maxine did in a review of another book in the series (so glad her blog is still on WordPress) as did someone I talked to on Twitter, so I’m glad I’m not alone.

  2. Rebecca, I have a few of the Havana series which I haven’t yet got to. I’ll be interested to see how I interpret the “sexist” parts of this and his other books.
    Will I be offended, indifferent, amused – I don’t honestly know. I’m a father of 2 teenage girls and a husband and I try and treat my loved ones and hopefully others I cross paths with respect without being too pc, but I’m not perfect by any means. My family will tell you that!
    Food for thought when I get to Padura.

    1. Hi, Col- The sexism jumped out at me because it seemed to keep on cropping up (and some of the passages went on a bit long), or else I wouldn’t have mentioned it. I just wasn’t understanding all the critical praise for this series when I saw a couple major problems: the sexism and the weak criminal plot. Granted, I haven’t read all of the books, but I don’t feel compelled to at this point. On to something with more rounded female characters!

  3. Very interesting review. My first reaction was… oh, no, not another book I need to look for. A series set in Cuba by a Cuban writer is definitely something I should try. And I will. And I like that each book in the series is set in different seasons.

    Regarding the sexism, I will be interested to see how I react to that. I read another book which was criticized for the same reason, and I had not interpreted that book that way at all. In that case, the remarks were related to the men’s thoughts when they see women, and men do think like that. At least the ones I have known well. (Not saying this book is handling it in the same way.) Regardless, an interesting topic, well worth thinking about.

    1. Tracy- I look forward to your review! Some sexist characters definitely grate on me more than others, but in this particular book it didn’t work for me. I think I’m avoiding lots of older stuff because the sexism grates on me too, but I may shake things up next year and finally get to some older books. Thanks for commenting.

      1. I was thinking about this later, and remembering that one of my favorite vintage mystery series, the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout, has very sexist comments by Archie (the narrator) at times. I have read and re-read these over many stages in my life, and it bothered me more later when I recognized the sexism, but still… I love the stories. The sexism and racism in some books written at those times can be grating, but usually in those cases, I see it as representative of those times. Almost expected. Oh well.

    2. I think my problem with the sexism in this book was that the translation just came across as inadequate (lots of trying-to-be-poetic phrases about a woman’s “rump,” which just made me chuckle). And it got to be repetitive.

  4. Well, I’m glad I know about the sexism. Sometimes I can put up with it, but not at other times, or handled in certain ways.
    Maxine Clarke did point out sexism in books, and particularly criticized sexist violence or sexist-based blurbs about plots.
    I have enjoyed some Nero Wolfe books and not the ones with the worst sexism and racism. Nero Wolfe also has problems with women, doesn’t like them or trust them, doesn’t ever want a woman staying in his brownstone.
    An interesting thing is that I never notice blog reviews or comments by male readers about sexism in crime fiction. A male reader-friend of mine can read anything, despite the violence or sexism. He doesn’t even mention it. And I’ read slews of blog comments, and I never notice
    this on the part of male readers. It’s just an observation.

  5. I actually had a Twitter conversation with a male Latin American studies prof who agreed that there’s a huge gender problem in this series, but I agree that I don’t run into too many male readers who bring up sexism in their reviews. I think it jumped out at me because I’d read such high praise for Padura but hadn’t expected the gender issue.

    Time for me to look up Maxine’s review: thanks for pointing me that way. And I can’t believe she’s been gone a year.

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