Havana Fever, by Leonardo Padura (trans. Peter Bush), is the sixth in his Mario Conde series. Conde is an ex-policeman living in Havana and working as a bookseller. It’s the last of my Strong Sense of Place books for my summer reading – the Cuba episode, obviously. It follows Conde as he discovers one of the most remarkable private libraries left in Cuba, decades after the revolution. As he and his partner Yoyi work together to decide which of the books are most valuable and which are most saleable (not quite the same thing), he uncovers a very old newspaper clipping of a bolero singer named Violeta del Río. He becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, and the novel follows him and his friends as he embarks on this quest.
In terms of specifically giving a good sense of Havana, this novel delivered. I couldn’t quite pin down when this was set, but there were frequent references to “the crisis”, which after a bit of reading around the subject I realised was probably the economic crisis and subsequent famine in the nineties, following the fall of the Soviet Union. At the time when this is set, the crisis seems to be largely over, but still a pretty vivid memory – therefore my best guess is that this is set in the late 90s or early 00s. I think the strongest section in the whole book occurs during a midnight ramble around Havana, while Conde thinks about how the area has changed over the past twenty years or so. Similarly, the atmosphere of the book overall was extremely well-rendered – the library where much of the action in the early pages of the book feels different; it feels cool and airy and luxurious, in contrast to the sweltering heat and general grime of every day life. Padura has the knack of writing evocative scene description without ever getting into the purple prose category.
The plot itself is pretty standard fare for this type of novel: man becomes obsessed with mystery femme fatale for no obvious reason, drinks a truly alarming quantity of rum (as opposed to bourbon, the traditional poison of choice for hardbitted detectives), has a lot of contacts in the underbelly of his city who help him out. My credulity is stretched in plots like these because I do not believe someone can fall in love with a voice on a 50-year-old record or a blurry decades-old newspaper clipping. It’s a hallmark of the genre, though, so I probably shouldn’t be too critical. The plot itself is a good enough rendition of this type of story, though it isn’t doing anything especially interesting or new with the same old elements.
The scene-setting and atmosphere of Havana Fever are 85% of its success. The 15% is really in the depiction of Conde’s friendships. You really get the sense of an enduring group of people who love one another and will support one another. His relationship with Skinny Carlos, a childhood friend who was paralysed about a decade before the events of the book, is particularly interesting. Carlos seems to have developed a very antagonistic relationship with his body after becoming wheelchair-bound, and goes on huge eating and drinking binges as his chosen method of self-destructive behaviour. Conde, who is more financially stable than Carlos and therefore finds himself bankrolling this, is torn: he wants his friend to stop punishing his body and shortening his life; he also wants his friend to be happy despite a very difficult life. I thought that both these elements – the portrayal of Carlos’s unhealthy relationship with food being a symptom of poor mental health, and Conde’s guilt at enabling him – were written with a level of sophistication I wouldn’t necessarily have expected in such a plot-driven novel.
Still, despite the book’s strengths, it didn’t always work for me. Padura seems to belong to the old-fashioned “women are just breasts that occasionally talk” school of writing, which is a shame: “the great-granddaughter responsible for caring for Rogelito, a creamy-white mulatto with over thirty solid, steamy years behind her, owner of nipples intent on drilling through her blouse and jutting buttocks where a man could sit”. I mean, is this a parody? I realise it’s in the perspective of the character – it’s just so boring. On top of that, I don’t know whether “mulatto” is considered as outdated a term in Cuba as it is in the UK, but it get used a lot. There are many racist and homophobic slurs throughout the book, mostly but not exclusively in the mouths of characters. Even when no actual slurs are used, the language is on the derogatory side, whether from characters or the narrator: LGBT people are “gays of every tendency and category”; the only black character with a meaningful role is “the African” and is once described as “simian”. Etc. This is a recent novel, but it comes across as tired – though of course it’s difficult to say what’s in the original Spanish and what’s translation. It feels a bit like a conversation with someone who’s deliberately being non-PC just for the sake of being “edgy” and provocative, but actually just comes across as a bit sad and pathetic. Between all these different elements, it feels unpleasant to read. That might well be on purpose. Conde is, after all, supposed to be world-weary and slightly pathetic. The thing is, when I pick up crime stories (especially thrillers), I am after a fast-paced, compelling read, and I did not get it from Havana Fever because I was struggling to get past the sludge to the core of the story. This book is only 285 pages – normally I’d race through a crime novel of that length in a day or two, but I just didn’t feel like picking it up.
After my success with In a Lonely Place earlier this year, I was wondering if I’d misjudged noir as a genre, but this contains all the things that I don’t really like about it. The sleaze, the excessive alcohol abuse, the inexplicable fixation with an unknown femme fatale… it’s just not my bag, I think. The location, the descriptions of food, and the bookselling element kept my interest sufficiently, but it’s not enough for me to want to pick up another one of these. I’ll keep on reading Dorothy B Hughes, but otherwise I think that this particular category of crime fiction is not for me. That’s not to say that this isn’t a good book – it is! If you like noir in general, I think you would probably like this.
I generally assume novels that aren’t dated within the story are taking place in the years immediately before publication – in this case Havana Fever was first published in 2003, which ties in with your estimate.
I like noir and now I’m going to have to think about whether that’s a literary preference or just me being a guy.
The copyright page on my edition is confusing (it’s an ebook and not a terribly well-formatted one), which is why I thought this was a later novel and was confused about the timeframe. I think I confused the translation date with the original publication date.
I’ve never been able to get into the Raymond Chandler-era noirs, with the exception of the two Hughes novels I’ve read. I think they just don’t have what I’m looking for in a crime novel – I’d rather read a detective story or a spy thriller.
Yikes! The sexist and racist tropes seem like way too much for a book set in the 1990s. That quote about the great-granddaughter seems so over the top that it’s hard to believe it’s in a real book!
I know, I couldn’t believe it when I read it – I actually read it over a couple of times trying to figure out if it was a joke somehow? But it was sincere! And reflective of how almost all attractive women are described in the book (and older women are described primarily by their lack of appeal from Conde’s perspective). It’s ridiculous.
Oh wow, that’s terrible. You’d think someone along the process of publishing this would have questioned such writing.
If you like the focus on a mysterious singer (not necessarily a femme fatale), you may enjoy Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. It has that noir detective feel and skips out on all the racist stuff that you mention here. The audio version is smooth as butter if you’re looking for something to listen to while walking, washing dishes, etc. I almost said commuting, but I believe you’re still at home, yes?