Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Review of Havana Blue

Havana Blue, (Bitter Lemon Press, 2007) the third novel in Leonardo Padura’s acclaimed Havana Quartet to be translated into English by Peter Bush, is not your usual mystery novel. For a full five-sixths of the book, it is unclear if a crime has been committed. Padura is more interested in writing about middle age and the broken dreams that litter people’s lives as they move inexorably toward old age than he is in writing a police procedural. In fact, the Spanish language title of the book is the more evocative Pasado Perfecto, or Past Perfect. The bland Havana Blue fails to capture the book’s melancholy tone.
Havana police lieutenant Mario Conde is having a bad day. He wakes up on New Year’s Day with a brutal hangover and gets a call from his boss demanding he look for Rafael Morin, one of the lieutenant’s high school classmates. In fact, he’s the man who married Tamara, the woman Conde has been in love with for years. Needless to say, Conde does not want to get out of bed and go looking for Morin, who is now a high ranking official in the Cuban bureaucracy. He does get out of bed, though, because he is a police officer, and it’s his job to find missing people whether he likes them or not.
With that phone call, Conde, nicknamed The Count, is put on a collision course with his past. The books cuts back and forth between Conde’s memories of high school and the present as he tries to figure out if the too-good-to-be-true Rafael Morin is really the upright comrade everyone says he is. Along the way Padura writes with affection about Havana, Cuban cigars and food. Conde is a bit of a gourmand, and there are many lush descriptions of meals throughout the book. The book works well as a window into a place and a culture that, given the current political scene, many people will never be able to experience first hand.
What is missing from Havana Blue is action. Readers looking for an American style police procedural, where the investigation is interrupted by action sequences will be disappointed. Conde’s investigation is all talk. The only violence in the novel takes place in flashback, when Conde remembers then only time he ever had to shoot a man. The languid pace of the novel, while it fits well with the novel’s tropical setting, may frustrate readers used to stories that move a little more quickly.
There are also a couple of places, most notably on the first page of the book, where the point of view switches from first person to third person for no discernable reason. For most of the book, first person is used in flashbacks and third person for the present, and these lapses may leave the reader scratching his head, but they are not so confusing enough to ruin the narrative.
Readers with the patience to follow Mario Conde through the streets of Havana in search of the truth about his lost classmate and himself will be rewarded with a glimpse into a closed society and the closed hearts of men.

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