Grab a Snake by the Tail by Leonardo Padura
EXTRACT pp 1-13
From the moment he started to reason and learn about life, as far as Mario Conde was concerned, a chino had always been what a chino ought to be: an individual with slanted eyes and skin which, despite its jaundiced yellow colour, was able to withstand adversity. A man transported by life’s challenges from a place as mythical as it was remote, a misty land amid tranquil rivers and impregnable, snow-peaked mountains, lost in the heavens; a country rich in legends about dragons, wise mandarins and subtle sages with good advice on every subject. Only several years later did he learn that a chino, a genuine, real chino, must also be a man capable of conceiving the most extraordinary dishes a civilized palate dare savour. Quails cooked in lemon juice and gratinéed with ginger, cinnamon, basil and cabbage sauce, say. Or pork loin sautéed with eggs, camomile, orange juice and finally browned slowly in a bottomless wok, over a layer of coconut oil.
However, according to the limited ideas that derived from Conde’s historical, philosophical and gastronomic prejudices, a chino might also be a lean, affable character ever ready to fall in love with mulatto and black women (provided they were within reach), and puff on a long, bamboo pipe with his eyes shut and, naturally, the laconic kind who utters the minimum words possible in that sing-song, palatal language they employed when speaking the languages other people speak.
“Yes, a chino is all that,” he muttered after a moment’s thought, only to conclude, after longer ruminations, that such a character was simply the standard chino, constructed by stereotypical Western thinking. Even so, Conde found it such an appealing, harmonious synthesis he wasn’t too concerned if that familiar, almost bucolic image would never have meant a thing to a real live chino, let alone to someone who didn’t know and, naturally, had never enjoyed the good fortune to taste the dishes cooked by old Juan Chion, the father of his friend Patricia, who was directly to blame for the fact that Conde had now been forced to reflect on his poor level of knowledge of the cultural and psychological make-up of a chino.
His need to define the essence of a chino had been prompted that afternoon in 1989 when, after many years without venturing into the rugged terrain of Havana’s Barrio Chino, the lieutenant revisited those slums, follow- ing the call of duty: a man had been murdered, though, on this occasion, the deceased was indeed Chinese.
There were complications, as there almost always are in situations involving a chino (even when the chino in question is dead): for example, the man, who turned out to be one Pedro Cuang, hadn’t been killed in the run-of-the-mill way people were usually killed in the city. He hadn’t been shot, stabbed, or had his head bashed in. He hadn’t even been burned or poisoned. In terms of the deceased’s ethnic origins, it was a strange, far too recherché oriental murder for a country where living was considerably more taxing than dying (and would be so, for some time): one could almost call it an exotic crime, seasoned with ingredients that were hard to digest. Two arrows etched in his chest with the blade of a knife, and a severed finger to add extra flavour.
Several years later, when Mario Conde was no longer a policeman, let alone a lieutenant, he was forced to revisit Havana’s Chinatown to investigate an obsession he couldn’t get out of his mind, the mysterious disappearance of bolero singer Victoria del Rio in the 1950s. When he returned, he would find a more dilapidated neighbourhood that was almost in ruins, besieged by refuse collectors who couldn’t cope and delinquents of every colour and stripe: the fifteen years between his two incursions into that area had sufficed to obliterate most of the old character of a Barrio Chino that had never been particularly elegant; all that was left to mark it out from the city’s fifty-two official districts was its name and the odd illegible, grimy noticeboard identifying an old company or business set up by those emigrants. And if you really persevered, you might come across four or five cardboard chinos, as dusty as forgotten museum pieces: the last survivors of a long history of coexistence and uprooting who acted as the visible relics of the tens of thousands of Chinese who had come to the island throughout a century of constant migrations and who had once given shape, life and colour to that corner of Havana …