Book Extracts
Havana Red by Leonardo Padura

The heat is a malign plague invading everything. The
heat descends like a tight, stretchy cloak of red silk,
wrapping itself round bodies, trees and things, to
inject there the dark poison of despair and a slower,
certain death. It is a punishment without appeal or
relief that seems ready to ravage the visible universe,
though its lethal vortex must fall on a heretic city, on a
district condemned to hell. It tortures mangy, forlorn
street dogs searching for a lake in the desert; old men
dragging sticks that are more exhausted than their
own legs, as they advance against the summer solstice
in their daily struggle for survival; once majestic trees,
now bent double by the fury of spiralling temperatures;
dead dust piled against the sidewalks, longing for
a rain that never comes or an indulgent wind, presences
able to upset their becalmed fate and transform
them into mud, abrasive clouds, storms or cataclysms.
The heat crushes everything, tyrannizes the world,
corrodes what could be saved and arouses only the
most infernal wrath, rancours, envies, hatreds, as if it
intended to provoke the end of time, history, humanity
and memory . . . But how the fuck can it be so hot?
he whispered as he removed his dark glasses to dry the
sweat dirtying his face and spat into the street a minuscule
gob of phlegm that rolled over the parched dust.
The sweat burned his eyes, and Lieutenant Mario
Conde looked up at the sky to clamour for a cloud that
would augur relief. And then the shouts of glee hit his
brain. The cacophony hurtled towards him, a rehearsed
chorale expanding as if it had erupted from the earth and
careered on the afternoon heat, rising up momentarily
above the din of traffic and lorries rushing along the
Calzada, gripping Conde’s memory in a sullen embrace.
But he saw them as soon as he reached the corner: while
one lot celebrated, clapped and shouted, others argued,
also at the top of their voices, and eyed each other up like
real enemies, blaming each other for the same reason
the others were so happy: vanquished and victors, he
quickly concluded as he stopped to survey the scene.
There were boys of various ages, between twelve and
sixteen, of every colour and shape, and Conde thought
how, if someone had stopped on that same corner, in
that same district, twenty years ago on hearing a similar
outcry, he’d have seen exactly what he could see now,
boys of every colour and shape, except the guy celebrating
or arguing most would have been him, the young
Conde, grandson of Rufino Conde, or the Count as
he was known to everyone. Suddenly he enjoyed the
illusion that time didn’t exist there, because it was that
side-street which had served ever since as an area for
playing baseball, though some seasons would see a sly,
treacherous football appear, or a basketball hoop
nailed to an electricity post. But soon baseball – with
bat, hand, four bases, three rolling-a-fly or at the wall –
would impose its rule not too acrimoniously, over those
passing fads: baseball infected them, like a chronic
passion, and the Count and his friends suffered virulent
Despite the heat, August afternoons had always been
the best for playing baseball on the street corner.
Holiday time meant everybody was in the neighbourhood
all the time, and had nothing better to do, and
the hyper-active summer sun allowed you to play on
beyond eight o’clock at night when a game really
deserved to be extended. Recently, however, the
Count had seen few games of baseball on the street
corner. The boys seemed to prefer other less energetic,
more sweet-smelling diversions than running, hitting
and shouting for several hours under a scorching
summer sun, and he wondered what boys nowadays
could possibly do on long summer afternoons. Not like
them: they always played baseball, he recalled, and
then recalled how few of them were left in the neighbourhood:
while some went in and out of prison for
lesser or greater crimes, others had moved on to such
disparate destinations as Alamar, Hialeah, Santiago de
las Vegas, Union City, Cojímar or Stockholm, and one
had even collected a one-way ticket to the Colón
Cemetery: poor Marquitos. Consequently, even if
they’d wanted to and still had enough strength left in
their legs and arms, the guys from that era could never
organize another game of baseball on that street
corner: because life had destroyed that option, along
with so many others.
When the celebrations and arguments were over,
the boys decided to play another game and the two
obvious group leaders prepared to pick their sides with
an eye to redistributing forces and continuing the war
in more balanced conditions. Then the Count had an
idea: he’d ask if he could play. He felt roasted by his
eight hours that day in the Information Bureau at
Police Headquarters, but it was only six in the afternoon
and he’d rather not yet return to the solitary
heat of his house. A much better idea would be to start
playing baseball. If they’d let him.
He walked over to the group, which was around the
plank chosen as home-plate, and hailed Black Felicio’s
son. Felicio was one of those he’d always played with
and the Count reckoned he must be back inside as
he’d not seen him for a long, long time. The boy was as
black as his father and had also inherited that abrasive,
acrid smell of sweat the Count knew by heart, for he
always managed to catch it when out with Felicio.
“Rubén,” he addressed the black kid, who looked at
him slightly alarmed. “Reckon I could join the game
for a bit?”
The boy kept staring as if he hadn’t understood, and
then looked at his friends. The Count thought an
explanation was in order.
“I’ve not played for some time and suddenly felt like
making a few catches . . .”
Then Rubén went over to the other players, so he
wouldn’t be the only one to bear the weight of the
decision. Best to consult on everything in this country,
thought the Count, as he waited on their verdict.
Opinions seemed divided and agreement took longer
than expected.
“All right,” Rubén finally said, from his position as
intermediary, but neither he nor the others seemed
over-pleased by their concession.
As they discussed the make-up of the teams, the
Count took off his shirt and rolled up his trouser
bottoms twice. Luckily he hadn’t taken his pistol to
work today. He put his shirt on the wall of the house
where Spaniard Enrique had lived – and also died, was
it ten, twenty or a thousand years ago? – and eventually
they told him he was in Rubén’s team and an outfielder.
But, when he found himself surrounded by boys,
shirtless like them, the Count felt it all too contrived
and ridiculous: his skin sensed the boys’ sarcastic looks
and he thought they perhaps saw him like the first
missionary to reach a remote tribe: he was a foreigner,
with a different language and customs, and wouldn’t
find it easy to integrate in that brotherhood which
hadn’t sought him out, which didn’t want or understand
him. Besides, all those boys must know he was a
policeman and, in keeping with the neighbourhood’s
ancestral ethics, they wouldn’t be particularly
delighted if others saw them on such good terms with
the Count, however close a friend he’d been of their
parents or older brothers. OK, some things never
changed on that street corner.
As the members of his team started to take up
positions, the Count grabbed his shirt and went over to
Rubén. He went to put his arm round his shoulders,
but desisted when he felt his skin touch the layer of
sweat covering the boy.
“Sorry, Rubén, I just remembered I’m expecting a
phone call. I’ll have a game another day,” he told him.
And he went off towards the Calzada, feeling the
red, merciless sun, already level with his eyes, burning
body and soul. Above his head he could see the flaming
sword indicating his irrevocable exit from that lost
paradise that had once been his, but was no longer and
would never be again. If that corner wasn’t his, what
did he own the title deeds to? A lacerating sensation
that he was alien, foreign, different, hit him so strongly
that the Count had to restrain himself and cling to his
last ounce of pride to stop himself running away. And
only then, when he realized it was too hot to be running
around street corners, did he grasp the real reason
they hadn’t wanted to count him in: how come I didn’t
get it, those bastards were playing for money . . .
“What’s the matter, wild man?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m tired.”
“It’s hot, don’t you reckon?”
“Fucking hot.”
“Your face looks really shit awful.”
“I can imagine,” the Count agreed, as he coughed
and spat out of the window in the direction of the yard.
Skinny Carlos watched him from his wheelchair and
shrugged his shoulders. He knew when his friend
behaved that way it was best to ignore him. He’d always
said the Count was a long-suffering bastard, a sucker
for nostalgia, a total hypochondriac and the most
difficult person to console in the world, and today he
didn’t feel he had time or stamina to relieve the fierce
onslaught of melancholy his friend was suffering.
“Should I put some music on?” he asked.
“You feel like it?”
“Only asking. Just to pass the time, you know?”
The Count went over to the long row of cassettes on
the top of the shelves. His eyes ran over titles and
singers, and this time was hardly surprised by Skinny’s
eclectic taste in music.
“What do you fancy? The Beatles? Chicago? Formula
V? Los Pasos? Credence?”
“Hey, Credence,” they agreed again: they liked to
hear Tom Foggerty’s tight voice and the elemental
guitars of Credence Clearwater Revival.
“Theirs is still the best version of Proud Mary.”
“That’s not even up for discussion.”
“He sings like a black, or rather sings as if he were
fucking God.”
“Fucking right.” And were surprised as they looked
each other in the eye: both felt simultaneously the
painful inevitability of the morbid replay they were
engaged in. They’d repeated that same dialogue, the
same words, on other occasions, often, over twenty
years of friendship, and always in Skinny’s room, and
its periodical resurrection brought back the feeling
they were entering an enchanted realm of perpetual,
cyclical time, where it was possible to imagine all was
pristine and eternal. But so many visible signs, so
much skulking behind shame, fear, rancour and even
affection, gave notice that only the remastered voice
of Tom Foggerty and the Credence guitars had any
permanence. The baldness threatening the Count and
not-so-skinny Skinny’s sick flab, Mario’s inveterate
sadness and Carlos’s intractable illness were all too
conclusive proof, among a thousand others, of a
wretched decline entirely in the ascendant.
“It’s some time since you saw Red Candito?” Skinny
asked when the song came to an end.
“No kidding.”
“He was here the other afternoon and told me he’d
given up his line in shoe-making.”
“What’s he into now?”
Skinny looked at the cassette player, as if suddenly something
about the machine or song had distracted him.
“What’s up, you sly bastard?”
“Nothing’s up . . . He’s got a piloto and he’s selling
beer . . .”
The Count nodded and smiled. He could smell his
friend’s intentions from several miles.
“And he asked me why we didn’t go and pay him a
visit one of these days . . .”
The Count nodded and smiled again.
“You know I can’t go to that kind of place, Skinny.
It’s illegal and if something happens . . .”
“Mario, don’t fuck around. In this heat, with your
shit-awful face . . . and it’s only a couple of minutes to
Candito’s place . . . A few beers. Come on, let’s off.”
“I can’t, you bastard. Fucking remember I’m a
policeman . . .” his weak-willed arms feebly hoisting
flags proclaiming SOS . . . “Don’t keep on, Skinny.”
But Skinny did. “I’m damned desperate to go and I
thought you’d jump at the chance. You know I never
get out, I’m more bored than a toad under a rock . . . A
few cold beers. Just for my birthday, right? And you’re
practically not a policeman any more . . .”
“But what kind of bastard have you turned into,
Skinny? Your birthday’s not until next week.”
“All right. All right. If you don’t want to, we won’t . . .”
The Count brought the wheelchair to a halt outside
the entrance to the building. He wiped the sweat away
again, as he looked at a passageway lined with doors on
both sides. His arms hung heavy after the effort of
pushing his friend’s two hundred and fifty pounds
more than ten blocks, and the two hills he’d gone up
and down. A light flickered in the dark at the end of
the passage and the glare from television screens and
voices of the characters in the latest soap emerged
from every open door in the place. “Tell me, Mama,
who’s to blame for everything that’s happened? Please
tell me, Mama,” asked someone who’d surely suffered
terrible things in that life in daily episodes that craved
to be the real thing. Then he put his handkerchief
away and walked towards Candito’s door, the only one
still shut. As he pushed the wheelchair he tried to hide
his face between his arms: I’m still a policeman, he
thought, as the temptation from those clandestine
beers drew nearer, with the cool, delectable oblivion
their consumption would deliver.
He knocked and the door opened as if they were
expected. Cuqui, the mulatta who now lived with
Candito, had only to stretch out her arm to turn the
door handle. Like all those living in the block, she too
was watching the soap, and her face seemed to reveal
the astonishment of the character finally discovering
the whole truth. “I’m to blame,” the Count thought of
saying, but he restrained himself.
“Come in, come in,” she insisted, but her voice
retained something of the hesitancy of the character in
the soap: she refused to believe, and perhaps that was
why she shouted into the room, and kept her eyes
trained on the newcomers: “Candito, you’ve got
Like in a puppet theatre, Red Candito’s saffroncoloured
head peered out from behind the curtains
hiding the kitchen and the Count got the code: having
visitors was different to having customers, and Candito
should show himself cautiously. But as soon as he saw
them, the mulatto broke into a smile and walked over.
“Fucking hell, Carlos, you persuaded him,” he said,
as he shook hands with his two old school friends.
“I told you I’d come and here I am, right?”
“You bet, come inside. I’ve still got some stuff left.
Hey, Cuqui, get a nice snack for these mates of mine
and forget the soap, go on. Whenever I look at it,
they’re spewing out the same bullshit . . .”
Candito sorted the furniture so Skinny’s chair could
cross the room, raised the curtain which hid the kitchen
and opened the patio door: some six tables, all full,
halted the Count in his tracks. Candito looked him in
the eye and nodded: yes, he could go in. But for a
moment from the kitchen the Count scrutinized the
customers: they were almost all men, only three women,
and he tried to identify the odd face. He instinctively
touched his belt to check his pistol wasn’t there, but
calmed down when he didn’t recognize anyone. Any of
those characters could have had run-ins with him at
Headquarters and the Count didn’t like the idea of
bumping into them in a place like this.
The cheap marble tables were round, iron legged
and piled high with bottles. A cold bright light lit the
space and a cassette recorder played at top volume the
mournful songs of José Feliciano, whose voice did its
best to drown out the drinkers’ voices. By the sink, two
metal tanks sweated ice against the heat. Candito
walked over to a table in one corner, occupied by two
awesome-looking specimens. He spoke quietly. The
men agreed to give up their seats: one was huge, fairhaired,
a good six feet tall with long, dangling arms, a
face as cratered as the moon’s surface; the other was
smaller, his skin so black it was blue, and he just had to
be a direct grandson and universal heir to Cro-Magnon
man himself: Darwin’s theory of evolution was
reflected in the exaggerated jutting of his jaw and the
narrow forehead where the eyes of a wild beast of
the jungle glinted yellow. Red Candito gestured to the
Count to push Carlos’s chair nearer and to the men to
bring three beers.
“What did you tell that pair of troglodytes?” the
Count mumbled as they sat down.
“Calm down, Conde, calm it. You’re anonymous
here, right. Those guys are my business legs.”
The Count turned to look at the big blond, who was
now approaching the table with their beers; he placed
them on the table and then, without a word, walked
over to the tanks.
“They’re your bodyguards, you mean?”
“They’re my legs, Condesito, and they have a
hundred uses.”
“Hey, Candito,” Skinny butted in. “What’s a lager
cost these days?”
“Depends how you get it, Carlos. Right now it’s
tricky and I sell it for three pesos. But yours is on the
house, and no arguing, OK?” And he smiled as Cuqui
appeared with a plateful of strips of ham, and cheese
with biscuits. “All right, darling, carry on relaxing with
that soap.” And he stroked her backside farewell.
The ice-cold beer restored a degree of peace to the
Count’s over-heated spirit, and he regretted gulping
down the first bottle almost in one go. Now he was only
irritated by the aggressive volume of the music and the
sensation of vulnerability he felt at turning his back on
the other customers, but he realized it was Candito
who had to survey the remaining tables and decided to
stop worrying when the blond guy replaced the empty
bottle with a full one. Efficiency was returning to the
“What are you up to, Conde?” Candito drank in
small gulps. “I’ve not seen you in ages.”
The Count tried the ham.
“I’m in the doghouse, because they suspended me
after I had a row with an idiot there. They’ve put me on
form-filling and won’t let me as much as look into the
street . . . But you’ve switched tack completely.”
Candito took a long swig from his bottle.
“No choice, Conde, and you know it: you can’t let
yourself get burnt in any business. The shoes thing was
half down the shoot and I had to change track. You
know it’s real hard in the street and, if you don’t have a
peso, you’re no longer a player, you know.”
“If you get caught, you’ll be in dire straits. God won’t
spare you one hell of a fine . . . And if they catch me
here, I’ll be in the doghouse for the rest of my life.”
“Don’t get like that, Conde, I tell you there’ll be no
dire straits.”
“You still go to church, I suppose?”
“Yes, sometimes. You’ve got to keep on good terms
with some people . . . Like the police, for example.”
“Stop talking shit, Candito.”
“Leave off, gents,” interrupted Skinny. “These beers
are dead and gone. Tell them to pour me another,
Candito lifted his arm and said: “Three more.”
The fair-haired guy served them again. The melodious
drunken voice of Vicentico Valdés was now playing
on the cassette recorder – confessing he was sure he
knew where to find the moon’s missing earrings – and,
as he downed his third beer, the Count felt he was
relaxing. The fact that he’d been in the police for
more than ten years had created tensions which
pursued him. Only in a few places, like Skinny’s, could
he get rid of certain obsessions and enjoy the gut
pleasures of old times, the times they were talking
about now, when they were students at La Víbora high
school and dreams of the future were possible and frequent,
because Skinny was skinny then, walked on
both legs and hadn’t been injured in the war in
Angola, Andrés wanted to be a great pitcher, Rabbit
insisted on rewriting history, Candito showed off his
effervescent, saffron Afro hair and the Count devoted
himself to beating out his first tales as an aborted
writer on an Underwood.
“Do you remember, Conde?” Candito asked, and
Mario said of course he remembered that story, a story
he hadn’t even listened to just now.
Blondie brought a fourth round of beers, and Cuqui
a second plate of titbits, which Skinny Carlos threw
himself at. The Count was bending over to get a piece
of ham, when Candito stood up, making his chair fall
“Bastard!” somebody shouted.
With no time to get up, the Count turned his head
and saw a mulatto put his hands to his face and totter
backwards, as if in flight from the big blond bruiser
standing in front of him holding a bottle. Then the
prehistoric black came up behind the guy, shouting
bastard, bastard, stood firm on his simian fighting legs
and delivered a quick flurry of hooks to the guy’s
kidneys that brought him to his knees. Big Blondie,
meanwhile, had turned his back on his companion
to look at the rest of the tables, hands on hips,
threatening: The first to try it . . . But nobody else did.
The Count, now on his feet, saw Candito walk past
him, reach the penitent mulatto and grab his shirt
collar. Blood spurted from one of his eyebrows, as the
small black, on the other side, gripped his hair and
whacked him round the ears with a wash-brush.
“Let him be,” shouted Candito, but the black kept
on with the brush. “Let him be, for fuck’s sake,” he
shouted and let go of the mulatto’s shirt to grab the
hand of the black, who only then loosened his grip.
The Count observed with almost scientific interest the
collapse of the macerated mulatto: he fell to his right
and his head resounded on the cement like a dry
coconut. No, he wouldn’t have stood much more.
Blondie walked over to the cassette recorder and
changed the music: Daniel Santos was the latest guest
for the night. Then, in no great hurry, he went after the
mulatto, held him up under the armpits, while the little
black took his ankles. They went out though a door at
the back of the yard which the Count hadn’t noticed.
Candito looked at his other customers. For a
moment only Daniel Santos’s voice could be heard.
“Nothing happened, get it . . .?” he said finally. “If
anyone wants another beer, then ask me, right?” and he
lifted up the chair knocked over by his speed of take-off.
The Count had already sat down and Skinny was
wiping away the sweat that had started to bathe every
inch of his fat body.
“What happened, Red?” Skinny took a long, long
“Don’t worry. As they say: aggro that goes with the
“The guy was after me, right?”
Now Candito gulped down his beer and took a piece
of cheese without looking up.
“I don’t know, Conde, but he was after somebody,”
he breathed loudly, still chewing.
“And how the fuck do you know, Red, if the guy
didn’t say a word?” Skinny couldn’t get over his shock.
“You don’t give them time to speak, Carlos, but he
was after somebody.”
“Fuck, they almost killed him.”
Red smiled and wiped his forehead: “The real bitch
is that’s how it’s got to be, my friend. Here it’s the law
of the jungle: respect is respect. Now neither that guy
or any of the people here or anybody who hears the
story of what happened will dare try it on.”
“And what will they do with him now?” Curiosity
gnawed at Skinny, who was sipping his drink nervously.
“They’ll put him out to rest till he cools off. And
after he pays for what he’s drunk, we’ll send him home
because he needs to get some early shut-eye today,
don’t you reckon?”
Skinny shook his head, as if he’d understood nothing,
and looked at the Count who was still silent,
apparently absorbed in the bolero Daniel Santos was
“Did you see that, you rascal?”
“You bet I did, you animal.”
“And do you get it?”
“No. I swear by my mother every day I understand
less . . . Hey, come on, Red, let’s have another beer.”

Havana Gold by Leonardo Padura

It was Ash Wednesday and, eternally punctual, a parched, choking wind swept through the barrio stirring up filth and sorrow, as if sent straight from the desert to recall the Messiah’s sacrifice. Sand from quarries and ancient hatreds stuck to rancour and fear and the rubbish overflowing from bins; the last dry leaves of winter scattered, coated with the stench from the tannery, and the birds of spring vanished as if anticipating an earthquake. The dust cloud smothered the evening light and each act of breathing required a conscious, painful effort. 

From the entrance to his house, Mario Conde contemplated his barrio in the wake of that apocalyptic storm: empty streets, closed doors, cowering trees, as if ravaged by a cruel, meticulous war, and he thought how behind sealed doors hurricanes of passion might now rage as destructively as the wind on the street. He felt deep within himself the first signs of a predictable attack of thirst and melancholy, also brought on by the hot breeze. He unbuttoned his shirt and walked towards the pavement. He knew his lack of an agenda for that night and the dryness in his throat could be down to a superior power, one able to channel his destiny between infinite thirst and relentless solitude. With the wind blowing in his face, the dust chafing his skin, he accepted that something accursed lurked in the gale from Armageddon that unleashed itself every spring to remind mortals of the ascension of a son of man to the most dramatic of holocausts, far off in Jerusalem. 

He took deep breaths until he felt his lungs collapsing under the weight of the dirt and soot, and reckoning he’d paid his dues in suffering to his restless self-torture, he returned to the shelter of his doorway and stripped off his shirt. The parched feeling in his throat now burnt more keenly, while the certainty he was alone had run riot and was trickier to trace to any particular corner of his body. It flowed unchecked, as if coursing through his veins. “You’re always bloody remembering”, his friend Skinny Carlos constantly told him: Lent and loneliness inevitably meant he remembered. That wind brought to the surface the black sands and detritus in his memory, brittle leaves of dead loves and bitter odours of guilt, with an intensity more perverse than forty days in the desert. Fuck this wind, he muttered, resolving not to wallow further in his melancholy, because he knew the antidote – a bottle of rum and a woman, the more whorish the better – was the perfect, instant cure for a depression that couldn’t decide whether it was located in his soul or in his skin. 

The rum was a possibility, even within the bounds of the law, he thought. The challenge was to combine it with that likely woman he’d met three days ago who was now prompting an undertow of hope and frustration. It had all started on Sunday, after lunch at Skinny’s – who was no longer Skinny – which confirmed that Josefina was in league with Lucifer. Only that butcher with the infernal nickname could foster the sin of gluttony where his friend’s mother plunged them: incredible but true, an almost hundred-per-cent Madrid-style stew, the dame explained, summoning them to the dining room where bowls of stew were already in place, as was a platter, circumspect yet full of promise, overflowing with chunks of meat, juicy titbits and chickpeas. 

“My mother was from Asturias, but always cooked her stews Madrid-style. A matter of taste, you know? But the downside is that along with the salted pigs’ trotters, piece of chicken, bacon, sausage, black pudding, potatoes, greens and chickpeas, it should also contain green beans and a cow’s knee-bone, which were the only things I couldn’t get. Even so, it tastes good, you must agree?” she asked rhetorically, pleased by the sincere astonishment on the faces of her son and the Count, who flung themselves at the meal, agreeing from the first spoonful: yes, it tasted good, despite lacking the refinements lamented by Josefina. 

“Bloody great,” said one. 

“Hey, leave some for the others,” warned the other. 

“You cunt, that chorizo was mine,” protested the former. 

“I’m fit to burst,” confessed the latter. 

After such an extraordinary lunch, eyes shut, arms weighing a ton and clamouring physically for bed, Skinny was nonetheless set on sitting in front of the television and enjoying his dessert: a double hitter of baseball. The Havana team was at last playing decently, and the scent of victory riveted him to every game his team played, even when it was only broadcast on the radio. He followed the progress of the championship with a loyalty that could only be displayed by an unredeemed optimist like himself, despite the fact they’d not won a thing since that distant year of 1976 when even baseball players seemed more romantic, genuine and happy. 

“I’m fucking off,” said the Count, after a yawn that shook his whole body. “And don’t build your hopes up too high, savage: this lot fouls up and loses the big games – remember last year.” 

“It’s like I always said, you beast, I love you like this: so enthusiastic and spirited . . .” and he wagged his index finger at him. “You’re a scabby bastard. But this year we are going to win.” 

“All right, if you think so, but don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .  In any case, I’ve a report to write that I keep putting off till tomorrow. Just remember I’m a proletarian . . .” 

“Fuck off. Today’s Sunday. Look, my boy, Valle and the Duke are pitching today, it’s a piece of cake . . .” he added, looking at him questioningly. “You liar. You’ve got something else in mind.” 

“If only,” sighed the Count, who hated placid Sunday afternoons. He’d always thought the best metaphor his writer friend Baby Face Miki had ever coined was the one about being queerer than a languid Sunday afternoon. “If only,” he repeated, and stood behind the wheelchair where his friend had existed for almost ten years, steering him into the living room. 

“Go on, why not buy a bottle and spend tonight here?” suggested Skinny Carlos. 

“I’m skint, you savage.” 

“Take some money from my bedside table.” 

“Hey, I’ve got to be in work early in the morning,” the Count faked a protest, following the route marked out by his friend’s threatening finger to the whereabouts of the money. His yawn changed into a smile and he recognized there was no way out: I might as well give up, right? “Well, I don’t know. I’ll see if I can come tonight. If I can find some rum,” still fighting his corner, trying to save a scrap of his dignity that was under siege. “I’m off downtown.” 

“Don’t buy home-made gut-rot,” Carlos warned and the Count shouted from the passageway: “Orientales for champions!” And scarpered to avoid insults he well deserved. 

He went out into the steaming early afternoon, blearyeyed, weighing up the options. I’m right, he thought, balancing duty against peremptory bodily needs: fully aware a verdict had already been delivered in favour of a siesta as Madrid-style as the stew, he muttered, “The report or bed?” as he went round the corner to get back to the 10 October Highway. And he imagined her before she actually come into view.  

The experiment rarely failed: when he boarded a bus, when he went into a shop, reached an office, or even entered a shadowy cinema, the Count went through the motions and was always pleased to corroborate its effectiveness: the deep reflexes of a trained animal always led his eyes towards the figure of the most beautiful woman in the place, as if the quest for beauty formed part of his vital needs. And that magnetic aesthetic attraction able to trigger off his libido couldn’t have let him down now. In the bright sunlight the woman stood out like a vision from another world: gleaming red hair, all soft and curly; legs like Corinthian columns, climaxing in luscious hips, barely covered by frayed, cut-down jeans; her face red from the heat, half hidden by round sunglasses, above a set of fleshy lips belonging to a woman determined to enjoy life to the full. A mouth to suit any whim, fantasy or imaginable need. How tasty can you get! he muttered. It was as if she’d sprung from the rays of the sun, hot and tailormade for his atavistic desires. The Count hadn’t had an erection in the street for a long time – the years had made him slow and overly cerebral – but suddenly he felt something disruptive in his nether regions, just beneath the protean layers of Madrid stew, and the waves provoked by that movement led to an unexpected firmness between his legs. She leaned against the car’s rear mudguard and, as he stared at her long-distance runner’s thighs, the Count understood why she was sunbathing in the street: a flat tyre and hydraulic jack lying against the kerb explained the despair he could see on her face when she removed her glasses and wiped the sweat from her face with such elegant panache. Mustn’t even let it cross my mind, the Count warned himself, predicting his usual awkwardness and timidity and, as he drew level with the woman, he greeted her as boldly as he knew how: “Can I help?” 

That smile was worth any sacrifice, even the public sacrifice of a siesta. Her mouth broadened out and the Count thought that the sun had no need to shine. 

“Really?” she hesitated for a moment, but only for a moment. “I just came out to get some petrol, and look what’s happened,” she moaned, pointing her greasy hands at the mortally wounded tyre. 

“Are the nuts too tight?” he asked, by way of introduction, as he clumsily tried to look handy at putting a jack in place. She crouched down next to him, keen to express her moral solidarity, and the Count saw a bead of sweat launch itself down the lethal incline of her neck and plunge between two small breasts that were no doubt free and firm under her sweat-stained blouse. She smells like a femme fatale coming on, warned the persistent protuberance the Count tried to conceal between his legs. Well, who’d have thought it, Mario Conde? 

Yet again Conde grasped why he always got low marks for manual techniques and workplace training. It took him half an hour to change the punctured wheel but in that time he discovered you tighten nuts from left to right and not right to left; that her name is Karina and she’s twenty-eight, an engineer; and that she is separated and living with her mother and a half-crazy brother, a rock musician playing in the band: The Mutants. The Mutants? He’d also found out that you must use your foot to turn the nuts with the spanner, and that she was driving to Matanzas in the morning with a technical unit to work in the fertilizer factory till Friday – and, yes, it was true, she’d always lived in that house opposite, although the Count had been going down that same street every night for nigh on twenty years – and she’d even once read something by Salinger and she thinks he’s fantastic (and he even thought of correcting her: no, he’s squalid and moving). In short, he learned that changing a flat tyre can be one of the most exacting jobs around.

Havana Black by Leonardo Padura


“And get here quick …!” he screamed at a sky that seemed languid and
becalmed, as if still painted from October’s deceptive palette of blue: he screamed, arms crossed, chest bare, bellowing a desperate plea with every ounce of strength his lungs could muster, so his voice would carry and also to check that his voice still existed after three days without uttering a single word.

Punished by cigarettes and alcohol, his throat at last felt the relief of creation, and his spirit thrived on this minimal declaration of freedom, soon to bubble up in an inner effervescence leading him to the brink of a second exclamation.

From the heights of his terrace roof, Mario Conde had surveyed a firmament devoid of breezes and clouds, like the lookout of a lost vessel, morbidly hoping his crow’s nest would allow him to glimpse, at the horizon’s end, two aggressive crosses he’d been tracking for several days as they journeyed across the weather maps, as they approached their prescribed destination: his city, his neighbourhood and that very terrace from which he was hailing them.

Initially it had been a distant, anonymous sign on the first plotting of a tropical depression, heading away from the coasts of Africa and gathering hot clouds before entering its dance of death; two days later it won promotion to the worrying category of cyclonic disturbance, and now was a poisoned arrow in the side of the mid-Atlantic, hurtling towards the Caribbean and arrogantly claiming its right to be baptized: Felix; yet, the previous night, swollen into a hurricane, it had appeared in a flux grotesquely poised over the archipelago of Guadalupe, which it crushed in a devastating, one hundred and seventy mile an hour embrace, advancing, intent on demolishing trees and houses, diverting the historical course of rivers and overturning millenary mountain peaks, killing animals and humans, like a curse descended from a sky as ominously languid and becalmed as ever, like a woman ready to betray.

But Mario Conde knew none of those incidents or illusions could change its destiny or mission: from the moment he saw it born to life on those maps, he felt a strange affinity with that freak of a hurricane: the bastard’s coming, he told himself, as he saw it advance and swell, because something in the atmosphere outside or in his own inner depression – cirrus, nimbus, stratus and cumulus rent by lightning, though still unable to transform themselves into a hurricane – had warned him of the real needs of that mass of rain and rabid winds the destiny of the cosmos had created specifically to cross that particular city and bring a long anticipated, necessary cleansing.

But that afternoon, tired of his passive vigil, the Count had opted to issue verbal summons. Shirtless, his trousers barely secure, with a skinful of alcohol fuelling his most hidden energies, he clambered out of a window on to the terrace and encountered an autumnal, pleasantly warm twilight, where, however much he tried, he couldn’t detect the slightest trace of a lurking cyclone. Beneath that cheating sky, and momentarily oblivious to its designs, the Count began to observe the topography of his neighbourhood, populated by aerials, pigeon-lofts, washing-lines and water tanks reflecting simple, rustic routines from which he, however, seemed to be excluded. On the only hill in the area, as always, he espied the red-tiled turret of that fake English castle his grandfather Rufino Conde had laboured to construct almost a century ago. He thought how the stubborn permanence of certain works that outlived their creators and resisted passing hurricanes, storms, cyclones, typhoons, tornadoes or even whirlwinds seemed the only valid reason to exist. And what would remain of him if he threw himself into the air there and then like the pigeon he had once imagined. Infinite oblivion, he must have reflected, a rampant emptiness as lived by all those anodyne individuals weaving along the black snake of the Calzada, weighed down by their bundles or hopes, or empty-handed, minds a mess of uncertainties, probably unaware of the inexorable approach of an awesome hurricane, indifferent even to death’s void, with nothing to remember or look forward to, now alarmed by the desperate cry he unleashed at the most distant point on the horizon: “Get here quick, you bastard …!

He imagined the cork’s possible pain as if it were live flesh he was penetrating with his implacable metal corkscrew. He sunk it in as far as he could, with a surgeon’s precision and determination not to fail: he held his breath, pulled gently, and the cork surfaced like a fish embracing the hook that was its perdition. The alcoholic vapour rushing from the bottle rose full and fruity to his nostrils, and, not a man for half-measures, he poured a large dose into a glass and downed it in one gulp, with the panache of a Cossack haunted by the howls of winter.

He gave the bottle an anguished look: it was the last from the stocks he’d hurriedly assembled three days earlier, when Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde abandoned Police Headquarters after he’d signed his request for a discharge and decided to lock himself in to die of rum and cigarettes, grief and bitterness. He’d always thought that when he’d achieved his wish to depart the police he’d feel a relief that would allow him to sing, dance and, naturally, drink, but without remorse or pain, for he was after all realizing a desire for emancipation he’d postponed for far too long. At this late stage in life he told himself he’d never really understood why he’d said yes to joining the police, and then that he could never fathom at all clearly why he’d deferred his escape from that world where he’d never really belonged although he’d found it infectious. Perhaps it was the argument to the effect that he was a policeman because he didn’t like bastards getting off scot-free that had seemed so convincing he’d eventually believed it himself. Perhaps it was his inability to be decisive that had guided his whole erratic life, tying him into a routine crowned by satisfaction at his more than dubious successes: catching murderers, rapists, thieves or fraudsters who were already beyond redemption. But he was in no doubt whatsoever that it was Major Antonio Rangel, his chief for the last eight years, who was mainly to blame for his almost infinite postponement of his wish to make an escape. The relationship of feigned tension and real respect he’d established with the Boss had functioned as an overactive delay tactic and he knew he’d never find the necessary courage to go up to that office on the fifth floor clutching his release papers. So he rested his hopes of making a break for it on the retirement of the Major, now fifty-eight, with possibly only two years to go.

But all the real and fictitious parapets fell at a single stroke that last Friday. The news of Major Rangel’s replacement had spread around the corridors at Headquarters like wildfire, and, when he heard it, the Count felt fear and impotence grip and score his back, spread to his brain. The Boss’s much debated, always inconceivable departure wouldn’t be the last chapter in that history of persecutions, interrogations and punishments to which detectives at Headquarters had been subjected by other detectives entrusted with the unnatural act of spying on other police. The long months of that inquisition had seen apparently untouchable heads roll, while fear thrived as the protagonist in a tragedy that smacked of a farce prepared to see its three obligatory acts through to the bitter end: an unpredictable end dragged out to a grand finale, and the sacrifice of something everybody had believed invulnerable and sacred.

Mario didn’t have to think twice before he decided to go once and for all. He refused to listen to any of the poisonous explanations going the rounds in relation to the Boss’s departure, wrote down his request to be discharged on personal grounds, waited patiently for the lift to take him to the fifth floor and, after signing his letter, handed it to the woman officer he met in the lobby to what had been – and would never again be – the office of his friend, Major Antonio Rangel.

But, rather than relief, the Count was shocked to find himself overcome with sorrow. No, of course not: that wasn’t the path to the triumphant, self-sufficient escape he had always imagined, but a reptilian slithering out of sight that not even Rangel would forgive. And so, instead of singing and dancing, he simply decided to drink himself silly, and on the way home spent all his savings on seven bottles of rum and twelve packets of cigarettes.

“Hey, you giving a party?” asked the Chinese sales assistant in the liquor store with a knowing smile, and Mario Conde looked him in the eye.

“No, friend, a wake,” he retorted, and back he went into the street.

While he got undressed, drinking a glass from the first deflowered bottle, the Count noticed how the death foretold of his fighting fish, Rufino, had been enacted: he was floating in the middle of water a dark, sickly ink colour, his gills open, like an aged flower about to drop its petals.

“For Christ’s fucking sake, Rufino, what made you die now and leave me all alone … just when I was about to change your water?” he asked the motionless body, before gulping down his drink and casting corpse and liquid down his voracious lavatory.

Already holding his second glass and unaware that he wouldn’t say a word for three days, Mario Conde took his phone off the hook, picked the folded newspaper up from under the door and put it next to the lavatory in order to give that ink-stained paper the use it deserved when the time came. That was when he spotted it, tucked away on a corner of page two: it was an as yet unnamed flurry, drawn west of Cabo Verde on a map whose cold latitudes sent an electric shock of prescience through him: the bastard’s heading this way, he thought immediately, and began to desire it with all his might, as if he could mentally attract that catastrophic, freakish engine of purification. And he poured himself a third glass of rum, and waited calmly for the cyclone to hit.

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura


Havana, 2004 

“Rest in peace”  were the pastor’s last words. 

If that well- worn phrase, so shamelessly dramatic in the mouth of that figure, had ever held any meaning, it was at that exact moment, as the grave diggers nonchalantly lowered Ana’s coffin into the open grave. The certainty that life can be the worst hell, and that the remains of fear and pain  were disappearing forever with that descent, overcame me with paltry relief. I wondered if I  wasn’t in some way envious of my wife’s  final passage toward silence, since being dead, totally and truly dead, for some can be the closest thing to a blessing from that God with whom Ana tried to involve me, without much success, in the last years of her difficult life. 

As soon as the grave diggers finished moving over the stone and placed the wreaths of flowers our friends had brought on the grave, I turned and walked away, resolved to escape the hands patting my shoulder and the habitual expressions of condolence that we always feel obliged to offer. Because at that moment every other word in the world is superfluous: only the pastor’s well- worn formula had meaning and I didn’t want to lose it. Rest and peace: what Ana had finally attained and what I also asked for. 

When I sat down inside the Pontiac to await Daniel’s arrival, I knew that I was about to pass out, and I was sure that if my friend didn’t remove me from the cemetery, I would have been unable to find the way back to my life. The September sun was burning the top of the car, but I didn’t feel up to moving to any other place. With what little strength I had left, I closed my eyes to control the vertigo of loss and fatigue while I felt the acidic sweat running down over my eyelids and cheeks, springing from my armpits, neck, arms. It was soaking my back scorched by the vinyl seat until it turned into a warm current that flowed down my legs in search of the cistern of my shoes. I wondered if that foul sweat and my deep exhaustion  were not the prelude to my molecular disintegration, or at least the heart attack that would kill me in the next few minutes. It seemed to me that either could be an easy, even desirable solution, although frankly unfair: I didn’t have the right to force my friends to bear two funerals in three days. 

“Are you ill, Iván?” Dany’s question, through the window, surprised me. “Holy shit, look at how much you’re sweating . . .” 

“I want to leave . . . But I don’t know how, dammit . . .” 

“We’re leaving, my friend, don’t worry. Wait a minute, let me give a few pesos to the grave diggers,” he said, my friend’s words transmitting a patent sense of life and reality that seemed strange to me, decidedly remote. 

Once again I closed my eyes and remained motionless, sweating, until the car was set in motion. Only once the air coming through the window began to calm me down did I dare to raise my eyelids. Before leaving the cemetery, I was able to see the last row of tombs and mausoleums, eaten away by the sun, weather, and oblivion, as dead as their inhabitants, and— with or without any reason for doing so at that moment— I again asked myself why, amid so many possibilities, some faraway scientists had chosen my name specifically to baptize the ninth tropical storm of that season. 

Although at this point in my life I’ve learned— or rather have been taught, and not in a very nice way— not to believe in chance, the coincidences were too many that led the meteorologists to decide, many months ahead of time, that they would call that storm “Ivan”— a masculine name starting with the ninth letter of the alphabet, in Spanish, that had never been used before for that purpose. The fetus of what would become Ivan was spawned by the meeting of ominous clouds in the vicinity of Cape Verde, but it wasn’t until a few days later, already baptized and converted into a hurricane with all of its properties, that it would rear its head in the Ca rib be an to place us in its ravenous sight . . . You’ll see why I think that I have reasons enough to believe that only twisted fate could have  determined that that par tic u lar cyclone, one of history’s fiercest, would carry my name, just when another hurricane was closing in on my  existence. 

Even though it had been quite a long time— perhaps too long— since Ana and I had known that her end was decreed, the many years during which we dragged her illnesses had accustomed us to living with them. But the news that her osteoporosis— probably caused by the vitamin- deficient polyneuritis unleashed in the most difficult years of the crisis in the 1990s— had developed into bone cancer, had made us face the evidence of an end that was near, and given me the macabre proof that only a perverse fate could be responsible for burdening my wife specifically with that illness. 

From the beginning of the year, Ana’s decline had accelerated, although it was in the middle of July, three months after the definitive  diagnosis, that her final agony began. Although Gisela, Ana’s sister, came frequently to help me, I practically had to stop working to take care of my wife; and if we survived those months, it was thanks to the support of friends like Dany, Anselmo, or Frank the doctor, who frequently came through our small apartment in the neighborhood of Lawton to drop off some supplies drawn from the wretched harvests that, for their own subsistence, they managed to obtain in the most devious ways. More than once, Dany offered to come help me with Ana, but I rejected his overtures, since pain and misery are among the few things that, when shared, always multiply. 

The scene we lived between the cracked walls of our apartment was as depressing as can be imagined, although the worst thing, under the circumstances, was the strange power with which Ana’s broken body clung to life, even against its owner’s will. 

In the early days of September, when Hurricane Ivan, having reached its full potential, had just crossed the Atlantic and was nearing the island of Grenada, Ana had an unexpected period of lucidity and an unforeseen relief to her pain. As it had been her decision not to go to the hospital, a neighboring nurse and our friend Frank had taken over the task of providing her with intravenous fluids and the dose of morphine that kept her in a startling lethargy. Upon seeing that reaction, Frank warned me that this was the denouement and recommended that I give the patient only those foods that she asked for, not insisting on the intravenous fluids and, as long as she  wasn’t complaining of pain, stopping all drugs to thus give her some final days of intelligence. Then, as if her life had returned to normal, an Ana with various broken bones and very open eyes became interested again in the world around her. With the tele vision and radio on, she fixed her attention in an obsessive way on the path of the hurricane that had initiated its deathly dance devastating the island of Grenada, where it had left more than twenty dead. On many occasions throughout those days, my wife lectured me on the hurricane’s characteristics, one of the strongest in meteorological history, and attributed its elevated powers to the climate change the planet was undergoing, a mutation of nature that could do away with the human species if the necessary measures  were not taken, she told me, completely convinced. That my dying wife was thinking of everyone  else’s future only added to the pain I was already suffering. 

While the storm neared Jamaica with the obvious intention of later penetrating eastern Cuba, Ana developed a sort of meteorological excitement capable of keeping her on constant alert, a tension she escaped only when sleep conquered her for two or three hours. All of her expectations  were related to Ivan’s doings, with the number of dead it left in its path— one in Trinidad, five in Venezuela, another in Colombia, five more in Dominica, fifteen in Jamaica, she added, counting on her crooked fingers— and, above all, the calculations of what it would destroy if it penetrated Cuba through any of the points marked as possible trajectories deduced by the specialists. Ana experienced a kind of cosmic communication at the point of the symbiotic confluence of two bodies that know they are destined to consume themselves in the span of a few days, and I began to speculate whether the illness and the drugs had not made her crazy. I also thought that if the hurricane didn’t come through soon and Ana didn’t calm down, I would be the one who ended up going crazy. 

The most critical period— for Ana and, logically, for each of the  island’s inhabitants— occurred when Ivan, with sustained winds of approximately 150 miles per hour, began to pass over the seas to the south of Cuba. The hurricane was moving with a lazy arrogance, as if it  were perversely choosing the point at which it would inevitably turn north and break the country in two, leaving an enormous wake of ruins and death. With bated breath and her senses clinging to the radio and the color tele vi sion that a neighbor had lent us, a Bible near one hand and our dog Truco beneath the other, Ana cried, laughed, cursed, and prayed with a strength that was not her own. For more than forty- eight hours she remained in that state, watching Ivan’s careful approach as if her thoughts and prayers  were indispensable to keeping the hurricane as far away as possible from the island, blocking it in that almost incredible westward path from which it  couldn’t resolve to deviate to the north and flatten the country, as all historic, atmospheric, and planetary logic predicted. 

The night of September 12, when information from satellites and  radars and the unanimous opinion of meteorologists around the world  were certain that Ivan would chart a course for the north and that with its battering gusts, gigantic waves, and rain squalls, it would rejoice in the final destruction of Havana, Ana asked me to remove from the wall of our room the dark, corroded wooden cross that twenty- seven years before the sea had given me— the driftwood cross— and place it at the foot of the bed. Then she begged me to make her a very hot hot chocolate and some toast with butter. If what was supposed to happen happened, that would be her last supper, because the battered ceiling of our apartment would not withstand the force of the hurricane, and she, it goes without saying, refused to move from there. After drinking the hot chocolate and nibbling a piece of toast, Ana asked me to lay the driftwood cross next to her and began to pray with her eyes fixed on the ceiling and on the wooden beams guaranteeing its balance and, perhaps, with her imagination devoted to playing out the images of the apocalypse lying in wait for the city. 

The morning of September 14, the meteorologists announced a miracle: Ivan had turned toward the north at last, but it had done so so far to the west of the designated zone that it barely brushed the westernmost point of the island without causing any major damage. Apparently the hurricane had felt remorse for the many calamities piling up, and had steered away from us, convinced that its passing through our country would have been an excess of bad fate. Worn  out by so much praying, with her stomach ravaged by lack of food, but satisfied by what she  considered to be a personal victory, Ana fell asleep after hearing confirmation of that cosmic whim, and in the grimace that had become habitual on her lips there was something very much like a smile. Ana’s breathing, strained for so many days, was relaxed again and, along with her fingers caressing Truco’s wiry hair,  was the only sign in the next two days that she was still alive. 

On September 16, practically at nightfall, while the hurricane started to disintegrate on U.S. soil and to lose the already diminished force of its winds, Ana stopped caressing our dog and, a few minutes later, stopped breathing. She was at last resting, I’d like to think, in eternal peace. 

In due time you will understand why this story, which is not the story of my life (although it also is), begins as it does. And although you still don’t know who I am or have any idea what I’m going to tell you, perhaps you will have understood something: Ana was a very important person to me. So much so that, to a large degree, it is because of her that this story exists— in black and white, I mean.

Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura

The symptoms hit him suddenly, like a voracious wave sweeping a child off a quiet shore and dragging him into the depths of the sea: a lethal double blow to the stomach, numbness that turned his legs to jelly, a cold sweat on his palms and, above all, the searing pain, under his left nipple, which accompanied every single hunch he’d ever had. 

As soon as the doors to the library slid open, the smell of old paper and hallowed places floating in that mind-blowing room overwhelmed him. In his far-off years as a police detective, Mario Conde had learnt to recognize the physical signs of his situation-saving hunches: he must have been wondering if he’d ever experienced such a powerful flood of sensations. 

Initially he was all set to be ruthlessly logical, and tried to persuade himself that it was pure chance he’d come across that shadowy, decaying mansion in El Vedado: an unusual stroke of good fortune for once had deigned to come his way. But a few days later, when corpses old and new stirred in their graves, the Count began to think that no margin for coincidence existed, that it had all been dramatically prepared, like a stage set up for a performance that only his disruptive entrance could trigger.  

Ever since he’d left his job as a criminal investigator, more than thirteen years ago, and devoted himself body and soul – at least as much as his battered body and increasingly enfeebled soul allowed – to the dicey business of buying and selling books, the Count had developed an almost canine ability to track down prey that would guarantee, sometimes in surprisingly generous quantities, his supply of food and alcohol. Whether for good or for evil – he couldn’t decide which – his departure from the police and forced entry into the world of commerce had coincided with the official declaration that Crisis had hit the island – a galloping Crisis that would soon dwarf all previous versions. The perennial, interminable periods of austerity the Count and his contemporaries had faced for decades now started to seem, in the course of inevitable comparisons and tricks of memory, like days of plenty or nameless mini-crises, with no right to awe-inspiring personification by capital letter.  

As if the result of a malevolent wave of a wand, the shortage of everything imaginable quickly became a permanent state, attacking the most disparate of human needs. The value and nature of every object or service was artfully transmuted by insecurity into something different from what it used to be: be it a match or an aspirin, a pair of shoes or an avocado, sex, hopes or dreams. Meanwhile church confessionals and consultancies of voodoo priests, spiritualists, fortune-tellers, mediums and babalaos were crowded with new adepts, panting after a breath of spiritual consolation. 

The shortages were so acute they even hit the venerable world of books. Within a year publishing went into freefall, and cobwebs covered the shelves in gloomy bookshops where sales assistants had stolen the last light bulbs with any life, that were next-to useless anyway, in those days of endless blackouts. Hundreds of private libraries ceased to be a source of enlightenment and bibliophilic pride, or a cornucopia of memories of possibly happy times, and swapped the scent of wisdom for the vulgar, acrid stench of a few life-saving banknotes. Priceless libraries created over generations and libraries knocked together by upstarts; libraries specializing in the most profound, unusual themes and libraries made from birthday presents and wedding anniversaries – were all cruelly sacrificed by their owners on the pagan altar of financial necessity suddenly felt by the inhabitants of a country where the shadow of death by starvation threatened almost every home.  

That desperate act of offering a few, genuinely or would-be valuable volumes, or putting on sale boxes, yards, shelves, even entire collections assembled over one or more lifetimes, raised conflicting hopes in the dreams of buyers and sellers. The former always claimed they were offering bibliographical jewels and were eager to hear figures that might assuage the guilt the majority suffered when they off-loaded their closest travelling companions on the voyage through life. The latter revived a mercantile spirit they’d thought banned from their island, and tried to make a purchase they could later transform into a killing by arguing that the volumes in question had scant value or commercial potential. 

In his early days in this new profession, Mario Conde had tried to turn a deaf ear to the stories behind the libraries that fell into his hands. His years as a detective had forced him to live surrounded by sordid files, but this hadn’t made him immune to the sorrows of the soul and, when he got his way and left the police force, he discovered painfully that the dark side of life still pursued him. Every library for sale was a romantic novel with an unhappy ending, the drama of which didn’t depend on the quantity or quality of books being sacrificed, but on the paths along which the volumes had reached that particular house and the terrible logic now sending them to be slaughtered in the marketplace. Nevertheless, the Count quickly learnt that listening was an essential part of the business, because the majority of owners felt the need to discuss the reasons behind their decisions, sometimes dolling them up, sometimes stripping them bare, as if that act of confession at least salvaged a shred of their dignity.  

Once the scars had healed, Conde began to see the romantic side of his role as a listener – he liked to describe himself as such – and started to weigh up the literary potential in those stories, often taking them on board as material for his ever deferred aesthetic endeavours. As he sharpened his insights, so he felt able to distinguish when a narrator was genuine or a pathetic liar, spinning a yarn in order to be better reconciled with his conscience, or merely to showcase his merchandise. 

The more he penetrated the mysteries of his trade, the more Mario Conde realized he preferred the exercise of buying to the subsequent selling of the tomes he acquired. The act of selling books in a doorway, on a park bench, on the bend of a promising pavement, fanned smouldering remains of ravaged pride but above all provoked frustration at having to get rid of an item he’d often have preferred to retain. Consequently, although his earnings plunged, he adopted the strategy of working only as a trawler, replenishing the stocks of other street-sellers. From then on, when prospecting for mines of books, like all his colleagues in the city, the Count employed three complimentary, occasionally conflicting techniques: firstly, the most traditional: visiting someone who’d asked him to pay a call, as a result of his well-established reputation as a fair buyer; then, the embarrassing, almost medieval procedure of hawking – “I buy old books”, “I’m the man to take those old books off your hands”; or the most in-your-face, knocking optimistically on doors and asking whoever opened up if they were interested in selling a few well-worn books. The second of those commercial approaches was the most productive in outlying, perpetually impoverished districts that were generally quite unfruitful – though there was the occasional surprise – and where the art of buying and selling the impossible had for years been the survival system for hundreds of thousands of people. On the other hand, the “truffle” method of sniffing out houses was necessary in once aristocratic districts like El Vedado, Miramar and Kohly, and in parts of Santos Suárez, El Casino Deportivo and El Cerro, where people, in the teeth of the poverty spreading across the nation, struggled to preserve increasingly obsolete ways of life. 

What was extraordinary was that he’d not chosen that shadowy mansion in El Vedado, with its neo-classical pretensions and debilitated structure, as a result of any odour and much less as a result of his shouting in the street. In fact, Mario Conde was almost convinced he was suffering from a progressive loss of smell, and had already spent three hours on that sultry Cuban September afternoon banging on doors and getting no for an answer, on several occasions because a colleague had passed that way before him. Sweating like a pig, fed up, and fearful of the storm heralded by the rapid accumulation of black clouds on the nearby coast, Conde was preparing to sign off for the day, totting up his losses in the time-wasted column when, for no particular reason, he opted to go down a street parallel to the avenue where he’d thought he’d be able track down a minicab. Had the tree-lined pavement appealed, did he think it was a shortcut or was he simply, quite unawares, responding to a call from fate? When he turned the corner, the decrepit mansion came into view, shuttered, barred and swathed in an air of profound abandonment. His immediate reaction was that someone must have already beaten him to it, because that style of edifice was usually profitable: past grandeurs might include a library of leather-bound volumes; present penury would include hunger and despair, and that formula tended to be a winner for a buyer of second-hand goods. However, despite his bad run over recent weeks, the Count yielded to the almost irrational impulse driving him to open the wrought-iron gate, cross the subsistence plot of banana trees, rickety clumps of maize and rapacious sweet potato lianas and climb the five steps that led to the cool porch. Barely pausing to think, he lifted the greenish bronze knocker on the indestructible black mahogany door, that hadn’t seen a coat of varnish since the discovery of penicillin. 

“Hello,” he greeted the person opening the door, and smiled politely, as etiquette dictated.  

The woman, whom Mario Conde tried to place on a scale descending from seventy to sixty, didn’t deign to reply and eyed him severely, imagining her “visitor” was quite the opposite: a salesman. She wore a grey housecoat blotched with prehistoric grease stains and her hair was discoloured and flaked with dandruff. Furrowed by pale veins, her skin was almost transparent and her eyes seemed appallingly desolate.  

“I’m sorry to bother you . . . I buy and sell second-hand books,” he went on, avoiding the word “old”, “and was wondering if you might know someone . . .” 

This was the golden rule: you madam are never so down and out that you need to sell your library, or your father’s – once a doctor with a famous consultancy and a university chair – or your grandfather’s, who was perhaps even a government senator if not a veteran from the wars of independence. But you might know of someone?. . .  

As if deadened to emotion, the woman showed no sign of surprise at the mission of the man on her doorstep. She stared at him impassively for a few lengthy, expectant moments, and Mario Conde felt himself on a knife-edge: his training told him a huge decision was being reached by the parched brain of that translucent woman, in desperate need of fats and proteins. 

“Well,” she began, “the fact is I don’t . . . I mean, I don’t know if in the end . . . My brother and I had been thinking . . . Did Dionisio tell you to come?” 

Conde glimpsed a ray of hope and tried to relate to the question, but felt he’d been left dangling in the air. Had he perhaps hit his target?  

“No . . . who is Dionisio?” 

“My brother,” the enfeebled woman went on. “We have a library. A very valuable one . . . Do come in . . . Sit down. Wait a moment . . .” and the Count thought he detected a determination in her voice that could see off life’s hardest knocks. 

She vanished into the mansion, through a kind of portico erected on two Tuscan columns of shiny, green-striated black marble, and the Count regretted the poor state of his knowledge of the now scattered Creole aristocracy, an ignorance that meant he didn’t know, couldn’t even imagine, who’d originally owned that marmoreal edifice, and whether the present occupants were descendants or mere beneficiaries of a post-revolutionary stampede to safety. That reception room, with its damp patches, missing plaster and cracked walls, looked no better than the outside of the house, but retained an air of solemn elegance and vibrant memories of the huge wealth that had once slept between those now bereft walls. Flanked by dangerously crumbling cornices and faded coloured friezes, the high ceilings must have been the work of master craftsmen, as were the two large windows that preserved remarkably intact romantic stained-glass scenes of chivalry, no doubt designed in Europe and destined to attenuate and colour the strong light from a tropical summer. In eclectic rather than famous styles, and shabby rather than broken, the still sturdy furniture also exuded an odour of decrepitude, while the black-and-white marble tiled floors, patterned like an out-sized chessboard, gleamed cheerfully and looked freshly cleaned. On one side of the reception room, two very high doors mounted with square bevelled mirrors, set in dark wood marquetry, reflected the desolation between flowery quicksilver blotches. It was then that the Count grasped what was behind the oddness he’d experienced on entering the room: there wasn’t a single adornment or painting, a single visual prop to break the grim void on walls, tables, shelves or ceilings. He assumed that the noble bone china dinner services, repoussé silver, chandeliers, cut-glass and canvases with dark or elaborate still lives that once brought harmony to that scene, had been sent packing in advance of the books, to address food shortages – a fate that the library, already flagged as a very valuable asset, might similarly meet, if he were in luck.  

The moment mentioned by the woman turned into a wait of several minutes which the Count spent smoking, knocking the ash out of the window, through which he saw the first drops of an evening shower. When his hostess returned, an older, more ancientlooking man followed in her wake, in urgent need of a shave and, like his companion, of three square meals a day. 

“My brother,” she announced. 

Dionisio Ferrero,” responded the man in a voice that was younger than his body, as he held out a calloused hand with grimy fingernails. 

“Mario Conde. I . . .”  

“My sister has already explained,” he said in the curt tone of a man used to giving orders, rounding off his remarks with an order rather than a request: “Come this way.” 

Dionisio Ferrero walked towards the doors with bevelled mirrors and the Count noted that his own appearance, framed in the reflection between the dark stains, was no better than the skeletal Ferreros’. The exhaustion in his face after successive rum-sodden, sleepless nights, and his squalid skinniness gave the impression that his clothes had outgrown his body. Dionisio pushed the doors with unexpected vigour and Conde lost sight of himself and his physiological musings at the same time as he felt a violent searing pain in his chest, because there before his eyes stood a splendid array of glass-doored, wooden bookcases, where hundreds, thousands of dark volumes rested and ascended to the lofty ceiling, the gold letters of their identities still glinting, neither subdued by the island’s insidious damp nor exhausted by the passage of time.

  • Page 1 of 2
  • Page 1 of 2