Review: Heretics by Leonardo Padura

Heretics by Leonardo Padura is a sweeping novel of art theft, anti-Semitism, contemporary Cuba, and crime from a renowned Cuban author (available March 14, 2017).

Within the pages of Leonardo Padura’s latest Mario Conde adventure, the reader can’t help noticing that atmosphere dominates—that squalor kind of atmosphere found in Raymond Chandler’s dirty Los Angeles streets or, more recently, the “Appalachian noir” of David Joy. Here is the demoralized vibe of 2007’s Havana:

Thus, while some subsisted on the dollars sent by their children who had gone off to anywhere in the world but there, others tried to do what they could to avoid falling into absolute poverty or jail: work as private tutors, drivers who rented out their battered cars, self-employed veterinarians or masseuses, whatever came up. But the option to make a living clawing at the walls wasn’t easy and caused that stellar exhaustion, the feeling of constant uncertainty and irreversible defeat that frequently gripped the former policeman and drove him, with one rough push, against his will and desires to hit the streets looking for old books that would earn him, at least, a few pesos to survive.

This is the world of 54-year-old Conde, a man existing on the barest essentials. Conde left the police force twenty years before and scrapes out an existence by purchasing and selling books or, more specifically, hustling on the streets when the dinero gets extra low. He willingly accepts a handout from a younger friend, someone he once mentored, and he’s gotten used to the generosity. But the tides of luck change when American Elias Kaminsky searches out Conde’s help in finding a missing family heirloom—a Rembrandt painting. Conde is offered Phillip Marlowe pay of one hundred dollars per day plus expenses, which is a small fortune, just the same, in Castroland.

In 1939, Elias’s father was in Cuba waiting for the arrival of the rest of his family—father, mother, and sister—who were on the MS St. Louis, the infamous German ocean liner that became known as the Voyage of the Damned as it remained offshore while the captain tried to find sanctuary for 900 Jewish refugees. The Kaminskys had left Germany in an attempt to escape Hitler’s nightmare, sailing to Cuba with a Rembrandt as collateral against any unforeseen hardships. The ship was turned away from Cuba—and eventually the United States, as well—and it returned to Europe where the Kaminskys and the heirloom vanished. Now, the painting has resurfaced at an auction in London, and Elias wants some answers on what transpired in the intervening seventy years—answers that may place his father in a negative light.

The creation of an atmosphere so real you can feel it isn’t limited to just the hardscrabble life of 21st-century Cuba or the distress of an immigrant family unable to reunite at the port of 1939’s Havana, the author has the gift to shoot us into the distant past—as if he’s created his very own WABAC for us to travel in and witness events firsthand—to 17th-century Amsterdam in Rembrandt’s studio. Mario Conde is a masterfully drawn character, but the beauty of Heretics is the desperation in which Mr. Padura casts the various owners of this painting and the cyclical human condition.

… a vivid confirmation of how fear invades an individual when the forces unleashed and manipulated by society choose him as an enemy and take away all recourse, in this case simply for professing certain ideas that others—the majority manipulated by a totalitarian power—have deemed a danger to the public good. The desire to escape from himself, to lose his uniqueness in the homogeneous vulgarity of the masses, was offered as an alternative against fear and the most irrational manifestations of a hate repackaged as patriotic duty and internalized by a society altered by a messianic belief in its fate.

“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again,”J.M. Barrie wrote, and in following Heretics from 1648 to 2007, Leonardo Padura brilliantly peels back the motivational psychosis of it all.

Check out David Cranmer's review of The Weight of This World by David Joy!


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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.


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