Translated by Anna Kushner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2017, 544 pp., $28
Leonardo Padura’s Heretics is a remarkable book. Padura, who is certainly the most prominent of a small number of Jewish Cuban authors, might also be the most famous writer in Cuba today. Best known in this country for his Inspector Mario Conde detective series (Havana Red, Havana Black, Havana Blue, Havana Gold and Havana Fever), Padura here extends his range. His previous historical novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, dealt with Leon Trotsky’s life and death in Mexico. This book travels farther afield. The titular noun (originally Herejes in Spanish) deals less with those who question Cuban orthodoxy than with various forms of belief and disbelief in the 17th century and today. There’s even a parallel between the false Messiah Shabbtai Tzvi, whose pilgrimage to Palestine ended in disaster, and the messianic promise of Castro’s communism—but the parallel remains implicit, not overt. Padura writes of adolescents who believe in nothing, of officials who believe in bribery, of an Orthodox Jew who kills proudly, and of those whose religion is art.
Unlike many other Cuban writers, Padura has long enjoyed freedom of movement and has been permitted to visit abroad; a trip to Amsterdam in 2010 would seem to have ignited his historical imagination, and in this new book he describes in detail the work and workshop of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Among the artist’s apprentices—or so the writer suggests—is the talented (fictional) Jewish painter Elias Ambrosius Montalbo de Avila. The young man’s head is sketched by Rembrandt as an image of the head of Jesus; then Elias paints his own version thereof to lie side by side with his master’s. This is doubly heretical, since Jews were not allowed to model for or paint portraits of the head of God.
Nearly half of Heretics takes place in the 17th century; the rest transpires in present-day Havana. In the modern day, the private detective Mario Conde once again serves as Padura’s protagonist, leading the reader through the complicated history of the Rembrandt painting: its creation, its owners, those who stole it and those who have attempted to recover it. Conde is in his early 50s, a retired policeman, addicted to rum and sex and friendship, living on the edge of poverty while scrounging a livelihood from the purchase and resale of books. He is hired to recover the Rembrandt by Elias Kaminsky, the son of a Jewish refugee who, when young, watched his family be turned away from the harbor in Havana, where they sought asylum. The family had fled Germany on the S.S. St. Louis, carrying the masterpiece with which they’d hoped to purchase safety. But after a fiasco of power-brokering and bureaucratic corruption, almost all the passengers of the ill-fated ship were sent “home” to certain death. This last part of the tale, alas, is true.
(Full disclosure here: My ancestors were German Jews, and my maternal grandparents came to Cuba when they first fled Hitler. They too were art collectors—though never, to my knowledge, in possession of a Rembrandt—and so there was a special immediacy for this reviewer in the description of passengers leaving the port of Hamburg in May of 1939 and then being forced to return to Europe.)
A general urgency governs the book, although it’s a long, slow tale. There are three principal narrative lines: the story of Rembrandt and his Jewish disciple, the story of Elias Kaminsky’s attempt to recover the painting and the story of Mario Conde and his Havana companions. Padura moves forward and back, interweaving the three skeins. His evocation of Rembrandt’s house and workshop is first-rate, as are his discussions of the painter’s focus on the primacy of eyes and his portrayal of the prosperous commercial town of Amsterdam, its tolerance of Jews and then its expulsion of them. He describes a large cast of Cuban characters—from Pepe the Purseman to Skinny, Rabbit and Carlos (Conde’s drinking buddies). This sprawling narrative can sometimes feel as if it could have been profitably cut or offered as separate stories. Questions of faith, of faith in art, of conversion and reconversion are all considered at discursive length. The detective spends many pages deciding whether he will or won’t propose to his longtime companion, Tamara, and whether he’ll be happy once he does.
Too, the language feels clotted at times. First published in Spanish in 2013, Heretics was ably translated by Anna Kushner, but it must have been a daunting task: The novelist moves from the severe rhetoric of bygone Amsterdam to the demotic rush of present-day Havana, and his style shifts accordingly. I think it more appropriate to lay this charge at Padura’s feet than at his translator’s, but sentences such as the following could be improved: “Those gatherings of the fundamentalist followers of friendship, nostalgia, and complicity had the beneficial effect of erasing the pains, losses, and frustrations of the present and relegating them to the impregnable territory of their most emotional and beloved memories.”
By and large, however, the writer moves with agility and ease from the formal discussion of heresy and the history of persecution to the drink-enabled chatter of contemporary friends. There’s a through-line of speculative investigation—whether as to the existence of God, the coming of a false Messiah, the provenance of the Rembrandt or the identity of the art thief and his murderer. “Without his noticing, the former policeman was again thinking like a policeman, or, at least, like the policeman he had once been.” And the several narratives do intersect: “The lives of those two men, legally cousins, had gone down paths so divergent that they seemed to be inhabitants of two different galaxies. But with mathematical fatality, Conde would prove that in a distant corner of the infinite, even parallel lines could find their meeting point.”
In Heretics, they do.