In this solid spin-off from Cuban author Pedro’s Havana Quartet, police detective Mario Conde investigates the 1989 murder of 73-year-old Pedro Cuang, a dry cleaner, in Havana’s Chinatown. Cuang was found hanging naked from a rope in the small room where he lived, with two arrow symbols “etched into his chest with the blade of a knife” and a finger severed. Was he killed in connection with a cocaine shipment? A Santeria ritual? Or does it go back to the influx of Asian migrants into Cuba decades before? Conde only agrees to work the case because of his desire for Lt. Patricia Chion, who begs him to solve the crime. Conde’s lust evokes early 1950s Mickey Spillane, while Patricia’s father, Juan, speaks in heavy dialect (Juan says of his daughter, “Is c’lazy, Conde, talk to her. Has got this vel’y young man... Gets back ve’ly late eve’ly night”). The sexism and racial stereotyping may be true to period, but they will also likely make some readers uneasy. Fans of the Havana Quartet will welcome Conde’s return. (June)
Padura has a global reputation as a serious writer and the author of literary detective fiction, but don't be put off. His series featuring Havana Police Inspector Mario Conde is so free of pretension, his characters so interesting, and his prose so bouncy one can even forget there's murder going on. This one begins when alluring fellow-officer Patricia Chion tempts Mario into taking on a death investigation. The corpse has a finger missing and a crossed circle on his chest—clues, of course, but more enticing is the woman who goes to bed early because television is awful and "she prefers to dream." Here's one of Mario's dreams: a bar where they would serve him his favorite tipple automatically. The other involves Patricia, and it comes true in a seduction scene that manages to be at once hilarious and wonderfully steamy. How nice it is to watch a high-powered talent at work on a form that too often relies on flat-footed prose.
All good fiction reflects something of the character of the country it comes from. Only that seems truer of Cuban literature: religion, sex, politics, superstition, and a dark soul born out of a turbulent history. There is no writer that reflects that more fully than Leonardo Padura. He has been described as the most important living Cuban novelist, which is not the kind of laurel normally proffered to a crime writer, but Padura is a rare kind of crime novelist. It isn’t that he does something dramatically different from other noir authors. However, what he does do he does with such an acute perception, gritty intensity, and a deep understanding of the character of Havana, his homeland and the people of Cuba that it elevates his fiction to another level. Padura’s writing is as insightful as anything you will find in a contemporary literary work. Mario Conde, his central character, undergoes a journey in this detective story as profound as most modern self-explorations, this is key to the enjoyment of the novel.
Grab a Snake by the Tail is the investigation of the brutal murder of a Chinese man in the Chinese quarter of the Cuban capital city, Havana. Can Detective Mario Conde crack a wall of silence to solve the crime? It won’t be easy, there’s an apparently impenetrable gulf of trust between the Cuban authorities and the minority Chinese community, which has no reason to welcome outsiders. This is a study in cultural difference, in perceptions of race and racism, both overt and unconscious. Padura has a way of presenting a stereotype and making you think he is operating on a shallow level before exploding the tropes to great effect:
“At the end of many a sweaty day in Chinatown, the most painful part for Conde would be his realization that the typical, exemplary chino of his imaginings would become an unfathomable being plagued by open sores,…”
Conde comes to realise that the people of the Barrio Chino are just as complex as the Cuban population with as many reasons for murder too; revenge, ambition and, even, loyalty. This case is as complex (not stereotypical) as it is commonplace (human motivations are universal).
Conde is a detective and a would-be writer, and as such he gives new meaning to the term ‘existential angst’. What we learn about him is as fascinating as the case itself. He is driven by an overactive love life and the entwined fear and desire that brings with it, and by the macho temptation to resist growing up, particularly where women are concerned. But Conde is savvy enough to have an insight into his own condition, he drinks too much, loves too much, but he is not totally in control. He has a sense of humour that gets him through the day but manages to rub other people up the wrong way.
Grab a Snake by the Tail is set in Havana in 1989, although Conde makes observations from a later date that help to give the perspective of time to the case. In the introduction, Padura explains that the Chinese quarter is all but gone now, it has been for some time. These days there are only a few decrepit signs of the old Chinese shops and businesses. In the novel Conde discovers this for himself in those moments in later in life when he reflects on the past; when he is no longer a policeman but for his own curiosity is investigating the 1950s disappearance of bolero singer Victoria del Rio.
This is 1989, before the great economic crash that came with the collapse of Russian support that followed the Berlin Wall coming down while the Americans stuck to their punishing embargo. Still, this is a city in decline, fading colonial houses and crumbling apartment blocks from the 1920s and 30s. There is a small Chinese enclave, a slum really, and when a man is hanged in a boarding house at the heart of this Chinese quarter Conde is brought in to investigate.
Padura’s view of Havana/Cuba is born of love for the people and the country but it’s brutal, realist, unromantic and all the more human for it. Conde has long since stopped seeing the communist state as a socialist idyll, the country’s rulers are; corrupt, cynical, nepotistic and devoid of morality. Yet life goes on, people are stoic; Conde has his friends, his books, his bottles, and his writing, he is a keen observer but more than anything he wants to feel, to experience life.
In the Barrio Chino a man has been murdered. En route to the scene Mario Conde muses on what he knows of the Chinese – it’s an obvious stereotype; they cook great food, they smoke opium from a bamboo pipe, they play mah-jong, they endure, they withstand adversity. In examining his own prejudices and judgements he realises that he won’t solve the case unless he can understand the community. Pedro Cuang’s death is not an ordinary killing, a drunken fight or a domestic row, it’s motive is rooted in history and culture. Cuang has been left hanging from the beams of his ceiling in his small room, two arrows and other symbols have been carved into his chest and a finger has been severed. Cuang is said to have had money, he was a 73-year-old man who emigrated from China as a child many years ago, he returned to the home country once, last year. If he had money, why did he come back to this squalor?
Conde is on leave but Lieutenant Patricia Chion, half Chinese/half black Cuban, tracks him down at home, Conde is a friend of her father, Juan Chion and he may be the only detective who can find answers in Barrio Chino. Patricia Chion has little problem getting Conde to give up his holiday for this case. She is a woman Conde has long desired, lusted after:
“That woman attracted you like La Gioconda, or, better still like the hottest (and best) version of Goya’s Duchess of Alba…”
She likes Conde, but sees him for what he is:
“A man, and a policeman to boot: always bad news for a house… but I’ve seen worse dens”
It occurs to Conde that he needs to know more about his friend, Juan Chion, if he is able to get him to help with the case. A man who speaks pigeon Chinese/Spanish, he has been in Cuba long enough to speak fluent Spanish, but chooses not to.
“Me be policeman?” drawled the old man, smiling, of course. “Juan Chion be policeman in Ba’llio Chino. No, Conde, me can’t.” His personal story weaves into the plot and it is fascinating.
Chion moved out of the Chinese quarter to avoid the mafia, drugs, prostitution and fraud; he married a Cuban woman and considers his daughter Patricia to be Cuban. Conde knows the murder is ritual, the answers lie in the culture of Barrio Chino, it leads him to Chinese folklore, palo monte and santera. The attitude of his colleagues is negative, Patricia is playing her own game and only a month before the police made a big drug bust in the Barrio Chino – does any of that help with the case?
Grab a Snake by the Tail is pitted with black humour, noir as the gods intended it to be. This intelligent and insightful crime novel is thoroughly intriguing. It will have you examining your own prejudices and assumptions. Conde is a compelling character and ultimately this is a very satisfying read.
The other books in the Mario Conde series: Pasado perfecto (1991, translated as Havana Blue, 2007), Vientos de cuaresma (1994, Havana Gold, 2008), Máscaras (1997, Havana Red, 2005) and Paisaje de otoño (1998, Havana Black, 2006). NB
I have to confess that I was a little unsure at first how my meeting with Leonardo Padura might go. The writer, neatly bearded and casually dressed, initially seemed a little ill at ease, suggesting with a frown that our meeting might have been better with an interpreter present. This proved to be very much not the case, as his command of English vocabulary is better than many an English speaker; when he started using words like ‘ambivalent’, I pointed out that this did not really demonstrate that his English was as poor as he said it was.
Padura is, of course, as good a literary writer as he is crime novelist, and our discussion raged across his ambitions for the kind of books that he writes, which are as much about his Latin society as they are about the commission and investigation of crime in his country. In the hour I spent with him, I learned more about Cuba and its current unsettled state than I had previously gleaned from British newspapers. But we were principally there to talk about his then-current novel, Heretics (translated by Anna Kushner) – a book that eschews straightforward crime scenarios in favour of juggling between the modern day and seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Bibulous sleuth Mario Conde becomes entangled in a mystery involving a Rembrandt portrait and his grandparents, who fled from Nazi Germany but were not allowed into Cuba. As much an astringent picture of Padura’s own society as a crime fiction outing.
And now I have Grab a Snake by the Tail, which is something like Padura on his very best form. Mario Conde is investigating a murder in the Havana’s distinctly downmarket Chinatown, Barrio Chino. A mutilated corpse has been found hanged from a beam. Pedro Cuang has had a finger removed, and has a drawing of two arrows carved into his chest. Conde is on familiar territory, and his first conclusion is that the killing is an act of revenge among squabbling drug dealers. But pressed by the seductive Police Lieutenant Patricia Chion, Conde opts to dig deeper and finds that the murder is far more complicated than it might initially have appeared. Once again, we have Padura’a irresistible combination of quirky storytelling and a vivid evocation of the city of Havana – Padura’s specialities, in fact. The translation by Peter Bush does full justice to the novel, which was inspired by the author’s work as a journalist when investigating the history of Havana’s Barrio Chino. ELN Barry Forshaw