Cuban writer Padura tests US literary waters

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MIAMI (AP) - Sitting in the courtyard of a picturesque Miami bookstore cafe, Cuban writer Leonardo Padura chuckles between drags on a cigarette.

Nearly all his life, he explains, has taken place in one Havana neighborhood.

It is there, in Mantilla, where he was born, raised, married and wrote the detective novels that have won him international acclaim. He still lives in his childhood home and likes sitting on a small bench in front of a new candy store that opened across the street and listening to the chatter of customers.

His neighbors call him “the famous writer.”

“But I am lucky,” he says, “because they also still know me as my mother and father’s son.”

Padura has carved a space that few writers in Cuba after the revolution have managed to attain: that of a public intellectual, at once accepted by - and critical of - Cuban society.

Now, at the height of his literary career, he is on a tour in the United States, visiting Miami, New York and Chicago. His critically acclaimed “The Man Who Loved Dogs” has been translated into English and published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“I think American audiences are intrigued by his detective novels,” said Ana Mario Dopico, a professor of comparative literature at New York University. “He brings a breath of fresh air to a very over-determined reading of Cuba which is very hyper-political, very Cold War.”

The principal character of Padura’s work is Mario Conde, a downtrodden detective solving crimes in the underbelly of post-Soviet Union Cuban society.

Through Conde’s investigations, the contradictions and shortcomings of a revolution in decline are laid bare. Yet his novels are also never overtly political. Padura himself takes great pains to state that he himself does not identify with any political party, nor the state or the country’s dissidents. He sees himself simply as a chronicler of modern Cuban life.

“If there is any positive effect my work can have, it’s in the act of being independent,” he says. “Of having a stance, a mindset, a space, that is free from political preferences.”

Born in 1955, Padura is part of the first generation to grow up with no or little memory of life before Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. He came of age when the Caribbean island still benefited from Soviet support and launched his literary career during the Special Period, the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His four Mario Conde crime novels were all published in the 1990s, a time when a limited tolerance for criticism within the arts began to emerge. Padura acknowledges that the situation before then was dramatically different. Writers like Reinaldo Arenas who condemned the Communist government were jailed, and their work was difficult or impossible to find on the island.

Today writers like Padura, Wendy Guerra or Pedro Juan Gutierrez can get away with casting a critical eye. Freedom is, however, still a tenuous concept.

“It’s a country that is governed by the party, and that party is of a socialist bent where there are still expressions of individual freedom that are not understood because they are considered aggressions against the party, the state, the government, which also represent the nation,” Padura says.

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