One of the ways that I prepare for a trip to a country where I have never been before is to read some good fiction based in that country. In the late 1990's, for example, in getting ready for a trip to Russia, I read Gorky Park and several of the other police novels of Martin Cruz Smith. Smith's descriptions of contemporary Moscow provided far more accurate glimpses of the people and the culture than could have been obtained from any guidebook. The streets of Moscow seemed a little less foreign to me because I had already experienced them through the eyes of Detective Arkady Renko.
This past spring I had a sudden opportunity to visit Cuba, a country that had been essentially closed to America for more than half a century. My own view of Cuban culture through literature was limited to Dirty Havana Trilogy: A Novel in Stories by Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutierrez which I had read several years earlier. Gutierrez told darkly humorous tales of street people and prostitutes as they scratched for a living along the impoverished edges of Havana society. I would have liked to have had a more rounded view of Cuba through its literature prior to my trip there, but time did not cooperate.
One of the Cuban authors that I would have liked to have read before traveling to the island nation was Leonardo Padura, a novelist and short story writer. Padura is best known for the Havana Quartet, a set of four novels (Havana Red, Havana Black, Havana Blue, and Havana Gold) focusing on a fictional police detective by the name of Mario Conde, a frustrated writer who has spent so many years with the police that he now bemoans the fact that he looks like a policeman. Conde, whose friends call him The Count, is also a philosopher and former athlete who would rather be playing sandlot baseball with the neighborhood kids that wading through urban crime life.
The first book in the Havana Quartet, Havana Red, is set in the 1980's, a time when no one doubted the ultimate control of Fidel Castro and the Revolution.
The presenting crime in Havana Red is the strangulation death of a transvestite in a wooded area of Havana. The young adult, dressed in a beautiful red dress, was the son of a prominent political family in Cuba. His death is intriguing because there are no signs that the victim tried to fight off his attacker, and two Cuban pesos had been inserted into his anus. As the philosopher/detective is drawn into the case, he becomes fascinated with the transvestite and gay subcultures of Havana. While the Count is learning hidden truths about the city in which he has always lived, so are Padura's readers.
This book illuminates the lives of ordinary (and some not so ordinary) Cubans as they struggle to survive and achieve a certain amount of personal satisfaction in a state that places the needs of society well above those of the individual. I hope to be able to explore the works of Leon Padura more thoroughly in the future - as well as the city that has always been his home.
Havana Red is a captivating work by a very talented author.