Prose in Exile In Cuba, Bestselling Writer Laments Forgotten Generation in New Genre, Literature of Disappointment

Leonardo Padura, born in 1955, is Cuba’s most successful writer. But he faces one huge hurdle: The Cuban government won’t publish his books.
Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba's greatest writers.

It is something Mr. Padura thinks about a lot.

“Every time I finish a novel, I think about the fact that it can’t be published in my own country,” he said.

But his works do get published. In fact, the last one, “The Man who loved Dogs,” sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide. It is the story of the murderer of Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary who spent his last years in Cuba before he was murdered in Mexico. The book is a criticism of Stalinism. Mr. Padura often writes about individual freedom.

In Germany, Mr. Padura became especially well known for a crime series, “The Havana Quartet,” which features hero Mario Conde, a policeman-turned-antique book seller.

Mr. Conde is also present in Mr. Padura’s new book, Ketzer, which is now available in German via an excellent translation by Hans-Joachim Hartsein. Mr. Conde, like his creator Mr. Padura, is a chain smoker.

The complex story takes its readers from the Amsterdam of Rembrandts and Spinozas in 1640 to Krakow to Havana, where in 1939 a ship with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany arrives. Mr. Conde is hired by the descendants of a Cuban American refugee family to find out who stole the Rembrandt picture of Christ that was in the family’s holdings for centuries before turning up on the floor of a London auction house.

Like many people of his generation, Mr. Padura writes about Cuba’s misery as a country. His work is part of a movement he calls the “literature of disappointment.” He refers to his generation as the “hidden generation.”

</a> Leonardo Padura's novel Ketzer spans four centuries.


“My generation,” Mr. Padura said, “is the first generation allowed to study at university. We are the best educated generation in the history of Cuba.” After that, he noted, access to education was limited.

Padura’s main protagonist, Mr. Conde, is one of those people representing a generation that never had a face in Cuba. “You’ve got one author here, one painter or musician there, but never a generation that could shape its own profile,” he said. “Our careers stalled because of the crisis.”

The impetus for his work came after the break up of the Soviet Union, which through its generous economic supplies had enabled the country's luscious living conditions. When Fidel Castro announced a “special period” in 1990, Cuba’s production dropped to a minimum and the population saw itself pushed into poverty.

You see an incompetent government that cannot guarantee its citizens whether their hard work will ever reap any benefits – that is a traumatic experience. Leonardo Padura, Cuban Writer

“Those were the years in which parents who had only one piece of bread would not eat it but give it to their children so that they could have two pieces: one for lunch and one for dinner,” Padura said. “When you experience only having one piece of bread per day, you lose faith. You see an incompetent government that cannot guarantee its citizens whether their hard work will ever reap any benefits – that is a traumatic experience.”

In order to counter this trauma, many Cuban authors such as Senel Paz, Arturo Arango and Ena Lucia Portela wrote “literature of disappointment.” These authors are disappointed because they are waiting for the “promise of a better society” – something that up until this very day just has not happened.

</a> Rembrandt is one of the main characters in Mr. Padura's new novel.


The new novel “Ketzer” is a passionate plea for tolerance

Mr. Conde, the protagonist, was 35 when the crisis in Cuba broke out, Mr. Padura wrote. The novel’s hero is not an alter ego for the author, the writer said, but a person who looks at the world through Mr. Padura’s eyes.

The Cuban writer’s work deals with social problems and conflicts. His novels are about freedom, totalitarianism, hope and a loss of values, as well as opportunism, and the drama of being in exile.

In 1995, Mr. Padura decided to become an author. However, he could not live from his writing. Today, he still writes columns for the news agency IPS und “Folha de São Paulo,” Brazil’s largest newspaper. “Since 1980, I have never stopped being a journalist,” Mr. Padura said.

The Cuban author won the national prize for literature in 2012 and his books are slowly becoming available in Cuba, albeit in limited numbers. The author doesn’t view the prize so much as a coup, but as a natural consequence of Cuba not being the same country it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I’ve been able to work rather freely in the last few years, but my situation is better than others because my most important publishers are not in Cuba,” he said.

So what does the Havana government think about the country’s acclaimed author?

“I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” Mr. Padura said. “My books, unlike others, are not supported. But maybe that’s the price for my independence. If so, I’ll happily pay that.”