Writing Cuba: An Interview with Leonardo Padura




“I MAY NOT BE the best Cuban writer of my generation, but I am the hardest-working,” Leonardo Padura likes to say. An award-winning, internationally known writer, Padura has published over 10 novels, available in at least 10 different languages, and travels the world visiting bookstores and universities, accepting honors and literary prizes, and granting over 300 interviews a year. In a country where intellectuals continue to toe the line, despite the purported relaxation of censorship in the last decade, Padura has managed to both capture the harsh realities of life on the island and survive the censors unscathed. His work has come to stand for a lost generation, or, more accurately put, for the losses of his own. For this, he’s paid a price: bookstores on the island cannot meet Padura’s readers’ insatiable demand for his work, in particular when his work encompasses nearly every genre from social and cultural criticism to short stories and the novel, with a fiction list that ranges from characters such as Leon Trotsky and Ernest Hemingway to Rembrandt and José María Heredia, the romantic Cuban poet.

I met Padura for the first time in the town of Vincennes, in the eastern suburbs of Paris, on the occasion of the 2010 Festival América (September 24–26) where he had been invited to participate, along with other Cuban writers from on and off the island such as Wendy Guerra, Karla Suárez, Zoe Valdés, and Eduardo Manet. I had already been in Paris for at least a month conducting archival research at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France on the links between the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962) when I was notified of the event. Unfortunately, due mostly to rain and the intensely crowded thoroughfare of an outdoor market, I missed Padura’s talk, only to run into him minutes later as he made a quick getaway. In the end, I did what fans of Padura’s work, and perhaps many of his closest friends have been doing for decades: I shouted, “Padura!” and brought him to a halt.

This time, we meet in Los Angeles, during his visit to UCLA. In person, the 63-year-old Padura is somewhat different from the man I remember meeting in Paris eight years earlier. He looks taller, thinner, perhaps even a little tired. At once open and reserved, humble and famous, Padura seems animated with equal parts resignation and pride. Lucía López Coll, his wife, accompanies him. I greet them, and my voice is full of emotion. After all, this is not just one of Cuba’s best-known authors, but a compatriot, someone who, for me, represents the homeland. He settles into his chair and gestures for me to begin. “I’m not going to ask you why you stayed in Cuba,” I tell him. “I know why.” “Oh, good, he says. Everyone always asks me that.” I ask my questions, one by one. Rushing through some, lingering on others. He’s no stranger to interviews, so his responses are thoughtful, but always measured, carefully modulated. Marked by a past of obligatory self-censorship and possible ideological omissions to avoid retribution. Only once does he ask me to leave out a segment — I, of course, agree. At the end of our meeting, he takes out a box of cigarettes and goes outside to smoke, one of several cigarette breaks throughout the day, although both he and López Coll swear he’s cutting down. More than anything, I want to join him, pry into his crystal ball, but I haven’t smoked in two years, so I stay put.

¤

SUSANNAH RODRÍGUEZ DRISSI: Would you like to talk about your childhood? What shaped your work and contributed to your development as a writer?

LEONARDO PADURA: My childhood was so ordinary, and so wrapped up into what it meant to be from my small town of Mantilla, that I don’t see anywhere an indication that this childhood had something to do with a possible writing vocation. Mostly, it had to do with ways of experiencing the world that were foundational: my father’s Masonic philosophy and its practice; my mother’s Catholic philosophy and its practice; living in a neighborhood where somehow everything worked like a microworld, where everyone had some familiar, historical connection, and where everything revolved around two or three very precise points — the whereabouts of Route 4, and certain businesses and schools. Most of all, however, I played ball. I spent from 17 to 18 years of my life investing most of the time I had on playing ball. When I wasn’t in school, and even when I should have been, I was playing. I read very little. At some point, I read what you read when you’re a kid, Jules Verne or Emilio Salgari. Then, as a teenager, I read The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel that moved me greatly. Later, already a young man, I read more, but I was no longer a child.

What does the town of Mantilla mean to you, personally, and what does it mean, in terms of your work?

Mantilla is at the center of my life, because I was born in Mantilla, and my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather were all born in Mantilla. I have lived there all my life, and to Mantilla I owe my first knowledge of the world, of reality, and of relationships between people. The town exists, of course, in the sentimental space, in the intellectual space I inhabit as a person, then in a social, geographical, and “cultural” space — very much in quotation marks, because there is not much culture in Mantilla; so, I’m referring to culture in the broadest sense, and that includes relationships between people. It is there, in that cradle that was and continues to be Mantilla, that I began to understand life and began to practice life in various ways. And from which point I begin to appropriate the city, an appropriation that was, geographically, moving from the south, where Mantilla is located, toward the north of the city. Because, first, I moved from my house northward toward the secondary schools where I studied, which were a little more distant from the house; then, during the high school years, toward the area of La Víbora; and then, even further south, toward The School of Letters and my work in the area of ​​Vedado, what is now Old Havana. All along, I was becoming me, taking over the city, but always with that feeling of going and coming back, going and coming back. In Mantilla, even today, when someone goes to the neighborhood of Vedado, or to Central Havana, they say, “I’m going to Havana,” and that “going to Havana,” for me, was one way of expanding my knowledge of the city about which I write.

A house may be many things — shelter, love, of course, a temple — a bad dream, even. “My Father’s House,” a poem by Basque poet Gabriel Aresti (1933–1975), goes something like this:

[…]
They will leave me
Without arms,
Without shoulders,
And without breasts,
And with my soul I shall defend
The house of my father.
I shall die,
My soul will be lost,
My descendants will be lost,
But the house of my father
Will remain
Standing. (My Father’s House, 1963)

In what way could we talk about your decision to live and write in Cuba as a way to defend your father’s house? 

There’s both a physical defense and a spiritual defense that take place. The physical defense has to do with that house. It has to do with a house that is physical, real, in which — with certain transformations of course — I continue to live and my mother continues to live, and where I have lived all of my married years to Lucía. And where I store numberless memories, vocations, belongings. It is there, in the yard of that house, that I’ve buried nearly all of my dogs. It is a place where I’ve put down roots, a place I have defended as property, and that I take care of as one of my most important possessions, and not for its possible material worth. A house like mine, a very good house in Mantilla, is worth very little in economic terms. If that same house were in Vedado or Miramar, it would cost 10 times more, but nobody wants to live in Matilla, except for me. [Laughs.] Then, in the spiritual sense, that house is also the first mark of identity. More than a Cuban writer, I am a Habanero writer; and more than a Habanero writer, I am a Mantillian writer. And more than Mantillian, I am a writer from a house on the Calzada de Managua, Number 75, between Libertad and Magón. A small, but significant universe surrounds that house, moves through that house, where a sense of belonging reveals itself to me in a very powerful and tangible way.

You’ve condemned your character, Mario Conde, from your celebrated detective series, the “Havana Quartet,” to a life of nostalgia for Havana. What has Mario Conde lost? What does he want? What does he need?

That is truly a difficult question because Conde wants so many things, has lost so many things, and needs so many things — my answer would be endless. Conde is nostalgic by nature, melancholy by essence, and ironic as a defense mechanism. There are other characters of the whodunit type with whom he shares some characteristics. Quite a few of them hold a cynical view of reality, but Conde’s not one of them. His vision of the world is not cynical, but ironic. Irony’s a defense followed by an attack, and Conde’s naturally ironic. He has lost and needs almost everything that my generation has lost and needs. He has lost dreams and opportunities — he needs hope; we see this play out, synthesized in many of his scenes, but especially in his reflections. Conde’s the reflective type, and that’s one of the characteristics of these novels: the action is minimal, the reflection is maximum. And, in that reflection, Conde expresses all the romanticism of an era, the disenchantment that we experience in another, and the restlessness that we now experience, in a country that ignores what the future holds or how it will get there. Because I believe that even those at work on a new draft of our constitution aren’t clear about where they want to go, where they can go. They have gone where they feel obliged to arrive, but not because they want to — and, certainly, not because that’s the best of all possible worlds. 

In The Man Who Loved Dogs, a frustrated writer recalls an episode in his life that occurred three decades earlier. On a Cuban beach, he meets an enigmatic man accompanied by two Russian greyhounds. After establishing an intimate friendship, the strange man will tell him a story whose protagonists will be none other than the Soviet revolutionary politician and theorist Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramón Mercader. Why Trotsky? What is Trotsky’s relationship to Cuba?

Trotsky is there, first and foremost, for pedestrian reasons. His presence in the story is the consequence of my knowing close to nothing about a character who was notorious for being a traitor and a renegade. Trotsky’s murder marks the point at which the socialist utopia reaches an irreversible and dramatic end. As you might imagine, knowing a figure such as Trotsky, and being able to work with such a figure fictionally, was arduous work.

Unlike the historian, or the social researcher, a novelist may work with a historical character, if he possesses the master keys to the story, to the character himself. You don’t need an absolutely exhaustive and documented knowledge of the period and the character himself, but you must master the context and the character’s perspective of his or her reality; it’s this very thing, this knowledge, that is going to lead to a novel and that the novelist will handle, from the vantage point of fictional codes. So, I read a lot about Trotsky and about Trotsky’s time, and I also read many of Trotsky’s texts, in an effort to locate the intersection between historical information and a possible space of dramatic development. I believe that the great challenge is to identify which of those elements in a historical figure’s life — a Russian revolutionary who’s been the protagonist of historical events, and now part of universal history — will lead to the kind of closeness necessary for the novel to exist and for him to exist in the novel. There are historical figures, José Martí, for example, with whom I’d never dare work, because I think I’d never come to the kind of understanding that requires both a closing in on the individual character and a distancing. With José María Heredia, I achieved both deep understanding and a necessary distance. With Trotsky, I think I achieved both, too.

What kind of research did you do for that book?

Research for the Trotsky novel was challenging because new information appeared constantly. Every time I thought I’d reached the end, new information became available. There were three or four books published during the final two years of writing the novel; one, for example, was called Spain Betrayed. It consisted of a series of documents from the Moscow archives on the role of Soviet advisors in Spain. Another one, called The Shield of The Republic, was authored by a Spanish historian who proposed an entirely different analysis of the origins and development of the Spanish Civil War. These copious publications constantly forced me to see things through a different lens, on the one hand; on the other, the relative absence of information about Ramón Mercader was daunting. Ramón Mercader is a ghost, a man we know about only because he killed Trotsky. Imagine, in Mexico, there were more than half a dozen Spanish communists prepared to kill Trotsky. Of these, we know only that one of them used a pseudonym, Felipe, but no one knows who Felipe was. It’s possible that the information lies in an archive, somewhere, but it’s unlikely; Stalin burned what information there was surrounding the planning of Trotsky’s murder. As far as Ramón Mercader, he could have been a certain Jacques Mornard, who was in Mexico at the time; or one Sylvia Ageloff, who was close to Trotsky’s family. But, had he not killed Trotsky, Mercader would have gone completely unnoticed by history.

And that investigation took about three years?

Two years of only doing research, and three years of writing and researching.

Do you right at night or during the day?

I write in the morning, and mainly in Cuba, although I’ve had to learn to write outside of Cuba, too — I’ve had no choice. But I am most productive and advance the most when I’m home.

How do you begin new work?

Beginning is always a special process, in the sense that I don’t know how I’m going to write a story or how a story is going to develop, until I start writing it, developing it. Right now, I’m in the middle of a novel that goes up to chapter four, about 110 pages. I know how chapter five will open, but I have no idea what’s going to happen after chapter five. I’ll discover that after I finish writing chapter five and start writing chapter six. So, it’s a process that involves early sketches that I revise in later versions.

So you don’t start writing with an end in mind, as many writers do?

I write with a purpose in mind, with one purpose in mind: the “Why do I write a novel?” This question is, in fact, the topic of an essay I’ll read in November for my induction into the Cuban Academy of Language. Strange, isn’t it? My induction comes only after belonging to three other academies, in Costa Rica, Panama, and Peru. Only now, in Cuba. [Laughs.] The essay is a long reflection on the Why? that is the purpose of the novel. The How? and Where? are easier to define, in particular if I’m working with historical characters. From the outset, I knew that Trotsky would be killed. Other times, I only find out where the story’s going along the way.

Could you say something of this process? When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule?

I write every day, from 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning to 1:00 in the afternoon — until Lucía shouts, “Leonardo, lunch is ready!” and I go have lunch. 

You enjoy the privilege of having a Cuban passport and a second citizenship. Do you feel at home both in Spain and in Cuba?

No, not at all. In Spain, I feel at my second home. My first home is Cuba. In Spain, I have friends, and a network of very important work relationships. Without Spanish publishers, institutions, production houses, and Spanish foundations, my work would not have enjoyed the scope, the proportions, the possibilities that it has enjoyed. That is to say, that to Spain I owe my numerous awards, and a great deal of my career. But my home is still in Cuba — I am a Cuban writer and I can’t be anything else. And, the fact that I enjoy visibility and that I’m promoted in another country — in ways that sometimes even reached my own country, where at times I have been invisible — has been fundamental to my work, to my career, and to what has been possible for me as a writer. Cuba is the nucleus, the Ithaca of my life. And, if I ever have to leave Cuba, if I’m ever forced to leave Cuba, I will lose that spiritual, cultural, but also visceral connection with the Cuban way of life.

During the last 50 years, the lack of individual will, which includes a Cuban’s inability to travel freely outside of the island, has defined the life of the average Cuban in Cuba. How does the fact that you may leave and enter the country at will impact your sense of belonging?

It solidifies or increases that sense of belonging. For many years, as you well say, Cubans required an exit permit to leave the island. I, too, had to have an exit permit, and still today we need a valid passport to travel. While presently it’s easier for all citizens to obtain a passport, not all citizens are able to complete the process. I’ve never had problems traveling abroad, and I’ve traveled quite a bit. In recent years, I think I’ve traveled too much, so part of that great curiosity I once had to know places is waning. Ultimately, the fact that I’ve been able to leave and return to Cuba, to belong, has been fundamental for me. If I’d been forced to live in Cuba without other possibilities, maybe my writing would have followed a different path. But since it was possible for me to have great freedom — though, not total freedom — to travel and move, that has solidified my sense of belonging.

Physical distance has been a constant trope in Cuba’s national literature. To whom does the island belong? To those who live and write in Cuba or to those who live and write abroad?

That question has no answer. I believe that Cuba belongs to Cubans, and everyone’s Cuban, despite differences in political creeds, or religious, gastronomic, and artistic preferences. Regardless of geographical location, as long as they continue to feel Cuban, they’re Cuban. Whether they live here in the United States, or Haiti, or can see the lights of Maisí from one end of the island to the other, if they feel Cuban, Cuba belongs to them. No one person owns the nation — we all own the nation.

What has been the role of self-censorship in your work throughout the years?

Self-censorship is a complicated mechanism, because it is always associated with political decisions. And a writer respects his limits, or at least I, as a writer, watch my limits, due to more than political concerns. I pay close attention to other conditions outside of my own, or other reflections that may have to do with a very diverse social nature, from topics related to ethnic groups to sexual preferences to religious beliefs; and, maybe, for a moment, I can think that someone who holds a certain belief, for example, is reckless for believing this or that. However, I am unable to express my personal perception in that same way in literature. I don’t believe I have the right to offend while exercising what I defend. As for political issues, gender issues included, some critics suggest that my books promote a macho masculinity, and that may be true. I think it’s true. I belong to a macho culture, and I have a philosophical formation that goes beyond what one consciously wants to reveal. They’re right, it may be there; and, there’s even some manifestation of this macho lens that I’ve tried to control and I haven’t been able to. But, politically, I have gone as far as I wanted to go. Beyond that, I’d be engaging in political literature and I am not interested in writing openly political literature. I am not a political man and I am not interested in making my work available to politicians. If there’s something I’d never be in life, it is a politician. In the ’80s, it was important to separate literature from politics in a country where all else had been politicized; and, where the political response was not to talk about politics. I have stayed true to what we achieved in the ’80s and what I consider to be a gain for Cuban literature. I have continued to write and, as I said earlier, I have gone as far as I’ve wanted to go and said as much as I’ve needed to say.

On July 10, 2018, the Decree 349/2018 was issued; a decree that addresses “[v]iolations by individuals of the regulations regarding the provision of artistic services.” The new law restricts the artistic activities that emanate from a growing independent cultural sector on the island, criminalizing the public presentation and commercialization of art, music, staging, and publications that act independently; that is, without prior authorization from the Ministry of Culture. It sensors content that, according to the Ministry, is harmful to Cuba’s ethical and cultural values. Given Decree 349, what does it mean to be an artist in Cuba today? And, what does it mean to write in Cuba in the 21st century?

The whole thing is complex, because there’s a combination of stench and fecal matter that informs it all. Maybe its origin has to do with certain public musical manifestations, or with attempts to politicize specific cultural activities, as happened with the Havana Biennial. It’s always dangerous when specific concerns become general policy. I don’t know and almost don’t want to know. A writer has to write and take the risks that come with his particular line of work. A painter has to paint and a musician has to make his music. However, there must also exist codes of behavior that societies, in some way, put in practice. If the practice is repressive, well, that’s one thing; if it’s much more tolerable and comprehensive, then it may be more acceptable. Writing in Cuba in the 21st century is an act of faith. People write books, write novels that are published in Cuban publishing houses that circulate little and badly. Seldom are people aware that those books — written by Cuban writers living in Cuba — exist in their own country.

Rumor has it that in the next two years you’ll be considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

That’s nonsense. You can never know or entertain the idea; and if I ever dedicate a single neuron to thinking about the topic, I give Lucía permission to beat that neuron out of me with her bare fists.

That’s what they say.

If some think so, well, thank you for thinking so. But, do you know what concerns me now? The sixth chapter of the novel I’m currently writing — that’s my real concern, not the Nobel Prize in Literature.

¤

Translated from the Spanish by Susannah Rodríguez Drissi.

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Susannah Rodríguez Drissi is an award-winning Cuban poet, writer, playwright, translator, director, producer, and scholar. A lecturer in UCLA’s Writing Programs, she is finishing a book titled Moorish Cuba: The Arab & Islamic Presence in Cuban Literature & Culture from the 1830s to the Present.


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