Monday, February 25, 2013

Worlds Apart

Sometimes, finding a title for a post is the harder part. Somewhere in the literary world, I am almost certain, there is a large firm of very well-paid scribblers whose sole function is to come up with titles for books, names for car models, political slogans, and bumper stickers of all descriptions. When I was looking for a title for my first Stride opus, I compiled a short list, and originally decided on The Drowning Place. But I eventually settled on Undertow. It seemed like a better idea. Then I googled the title and found several books with that title already on the market. That told me that there is no way to copyright titles; and because I liked that "undertow" meant - a current below the surface of the sea that moves in the opposite direction to the current on the surface – I went with that. It fitted well with the personality and history of the central villain in the piece.

Also, many years earlier, in September 1957, during a short trip to New York, I went swimming off Jones Beach and was actually caught in the undertow. Although I was swimming as vigorously as I could, I found that I was being pulled farther out to sea with every stroke. Complicating the situation was the fact that the beach was almost deserted. No lifeguards at that time of year. A very scary situation.

Obviously I did survive, if only just. I waited for a wave of some magnitude, and went with it towards the shore, flailing madly, more often under the water than on the surface. When I hit the shore – literally – I was gasping and choking, but I was alive.

But I digress. (I tend to do that a lot; which makes any excursion on the internet a trap for me.)

I will start by saying that the "worlds apart" heading for this post include South Africa and Cuba.

I had intended to write a post on the Oscar Pistorius situation in South Africa, but I see that Rick Blechta – the devil! – has stolen my thunder. Just as well, really. It's a tricky situation writing about an issue that is just now before the courts.

My approach to the Pistorius story was going to be the possibility that anabolic steroids might have played a role in the tragedy. The possibility that Pistorius was taking steroids to improve his athletic performance had occurred to me early on. I noted that today – I am writing this post on Wednesday February 20th, but the post will appear on Monday the 25th – the Huffington Post has a piece on the possibility that "roid rage"might be brought up by the defense in this sad case. I would have thought that the prosecution, not the defense, might have brought that up. Not having a legal background, I would have thought that if Pistorius was shown to have significant levels of anabolic steroids in his system, meaning that he had knowingly dosed himself with same, that would work against him. But the Post article suggested that this could be a possible line of defense: a "Roid Rage-based Insanity Defense". The article also said that the police had taken blood samples from Pistorius immediately after the killing, specifically to exclude that sort of defense strategy. Interesting.

So, not having the "Pistorius affair" to write about this time out, the question was, as it so often is, what to write about? Well, I am heading off to Cuba for a week in the sun, so it occurred to me that blogging about mystery novels set in Cuba might be interesting. I know there are any number of such novels "out there".

As one example, Martin Cruz Smith placed his fictional detective Arkady Renko - famous for his adventures in Gorky Park - in Havana for Havana Bay, in 1999.

There is also Jose Latour, who was born in Cuba in 1940, but is now living in Toronto. Latour has a series of well-reviewed mystery novels set in his native land. He was initially published in his native Cuba, but he ran into serious problems with his novel The Fool, as noted in Wikipedia:

"In 1994 Latour submitted his new book The Fool to his Cuban publisher. Based on a real-life case of corruption in the ministries of the Interior and the Armed Forces, the book was considered counterrevolutionary and its author labeled an ‘enemy of the people’. "

Not too surprising, really, given the nature of the Castro government. So, after that, Latour decided to try writing in English. His output has been impressive. The list includes Havana Best Friends (2002), Havana World Series (2003), Outcast (2007), Comrades In Miami (2008), and Crime of Fashion (2010). Outcast,  published in the U.S., Japan, five Western European countries and Brazil, received good reviews and was even nominated for an Edgar.

Latour and his family moved to Spain in August 2002 and to then to Canada in September 2004.

A native-born Canadian writer, Peggy Blair, who lives and writes in Ottawa, released The Beggar's Opera (2012), set in present day Havana, to very positive reviews. Her second book in the series, The Poisoned Pawn, is due out soon, and already has garnered positive reviews in the Globe and Mail and The National Post.

But it's a Cuban writer, still residing in Cuba, who has now caught my attention. I will finish this post with some information on him. His full name is Leonardo Padura Fuentes, but he writes under his first two names, Leonardo Padura.

Padura was born in Havana and now lives in the working class suburb of Mantilla. He took a degree in Latin American literature at the University of Havana. He initially worked as an investigative journalist, where he came to prominence writing for a literary magazine, Caiman Barbudo. I will be upfront here and admit that I had never heard of Padura until I Googled "mystery novels Cuba" this morning. Very remiss of me, given that I have an ongoing interest in Cuba, and have visited the country a half-dozen times. Even more remiss considering that the Ottawa Public Library has copies of his novels in their collection.

Wikipedia writes that Padura is best known in the English-speaking world for his quartet of detective novels featuring lieutenant Mario Conde, Las cuatro estaciones (The Four Seasons). The books are available in English translations.

The novels are:
  • Pasado perfecto, 1991; published as Havana Blue, 2007
  • Vientos de cuaresma, 1994, published as Havana Gold, 2008
  • Mascaras, 1997, published as Havana Red, 2005, and
  • Paisaje de otoƱo, 1998, published as Havana Black, 2006
The books are set respectively in winter, spring, summer and autumn. Lieutenant Mario Conde is a cop who would rather be a writer, and who admits to feelings of "solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards".

The fifth novel in the Mario Conde series is Adios Hemingway. The late 1950's Hemingway fits easily and well into Padura's view of the world. Hemingway and Padura have things in common: the beard, the occasional guayabera shirt, the keen interest in sports (Padura hoped to become a pro baseball player until he realised “I didn’t have enough strength to be a good hitter”). Both men started out as journalists and let their reporter’s eye lead them to a kind of fiction that strives, above all, to tell the truth. And both men chose to live and work away from Havana’s center: Padura in the house, built by his grandfather, where he was born; Hemingway in his Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), a 19th-century estate situated about 16 kilometres east of Havana.

Leonardo Padura has also been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Danish, and Greek.

The upshot of all this is that I now have a new author to read. Would that I had at least one of his books in hand for my trip to Varadero.


the voice behind the pen said...

i wonder how you guys decided what your best writing days were/ are.

j welling said...

Cuba in February. Fortunate neighbors.

One day I'll get there.