Book Review Havana Fever

I’ve been sitting on this book, waiting to review it, but not sure I could do it justice.  Frankly, I have not read such a good  satisfying book in a very long time. I’m almost afraid to write about it, as if that would ruin the “magic!”

Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura has really just amazed me.  and the fact that I found it still so tightly written and expressive via translation speaks volumes. 

    Published in 2005, the original title is  La Nebila Del Ayer  Loosley translated, it is “The Mist of Yesterday” which I think is a more appropro title for this novel, but,  I think the Press, Bitter Lemon out of London thought that Havana Fever had more snap.  

  Here is a synopsis of the story from Book Browse on the web:

Havana, 2003, fourteen years since Mario Conde retired from the police force and much has changed in Cuba. He now makes a living trading in antique books bought from families selling off their libraries in order to survive. In the house of Alcides de Montes de Oca, a rich Cuban who fled after the fall of Batista, Conde discovers an extraordinary book collection and, buried therein, a newspaper article about Violeta del Rio, a beautiful bolero singer of the 1950’s, who disappeared mysteriously. Conde’s intuition sets him off on an investigation that leads him into a darker Cuba, now flooded with dollars, populated by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and other hunters of the night. But this novel also allows Padura to evoke the Havana of Batista, the city of a hundred night clubs where Marlon Brando and Josephine Baker listened to boleros, mambos and jazz. Probably Padura’s best book, Havana Fever is many things: a suspenseful crime novel, a cruel family saga and an ode to literature and his beloved, ravaged island.

This is a basic summary of the essential plot of the book.  While the plot is interesting and moves the story along, the real joy in 

reading this novel is the evocative, and descriptive writing. 

Padura, a Cuban writer, paints two pictures, one of the wild Havana nights of the 1950’s, before the Revolutionanother of current day Cuba, where embargos and trade restrictions have severely crippled the country in a variety of ways.  

   The books opens with Conde, the main character, (A police officer turned antique book dealer) discovering a virtual treasure trove of older, well cared for, extremely valuable books for sale.  The sale is necessitated by the owners coming close to actual starvation.  Padura, obviously a book lover, describes many of these books in detail, noting the special leather bindings and color lithographs which were considered special and uncommon at the time.  Reading the descriptions made me understand how desperate these people must have become, especially in the years post revolution.  In Paduras own words,

the shortage of everything imaginable quickly became a permanent state, attacking the most disparate of human needs.  The value and nature of everything was artfully transmuted by insecurity into something different from what it used to be: be it a match or an aspirin, a pair of shoe or an avocado, sex, hopes, or dreams.”  (p14)

I was raised to not value material things in a way different from many Americans, and I guess I never had considered just how difficult the trade embargoes have been, as I am not one to covet things.   I have some special treasures, works of art from my travels, that have some value.  I think having to convert those treasures at an unfair price into something as mundane as an aspirin, would cause me great distress.  It seems that Practicality has had to rule in Cuba, and over the years, many many very special works of art, rare books have left the Island for a pittance to be sold overseas for larger amounts.

I started to see how destructive this can be to a culture, where once there was a vibrant hopeful situation, most citizens now are struggling to survive.  Art and music truly help define a culture, thus, each rare treasure that leaves takes a bit of the National Soul, if you will.  What a tragedy.  

And while the “classic cars” that troll the streets of Havana are quaint, I’m not sure any of us would like to be using one regularly for transportation, given the prices of gas these days.
I’m not saying anything against Socialism or what not, but more something about what people do to survive in an situation when resources are really really scarce.  And what their “doing” does to their souls, if you will.

Or as Padura States:

The Ferreros flopped down on their armchairs and Conde noticed their pathetic nervous tics, and reflected that hunger  and principles, poverty and dignity, scarcity and pride are difficult pairings to reconcile

      Conde begins to examine the books and finds a newspaper clipping about a young Bolerista, Violeta Del Rio.   Cuban Bolero is a genre of music and dance, which is specific to Cuba.  There is a Spanish Bolero which is possibly better known, and unrelated to the Cuban style.  
Here’s a local Bolero singer on the streets of Cuba, to give you an idea of the style.  It’s mostly just a slower song with guitar accompaniment.  In the 1920-1950’s the form evolved and included piano accompaniment, or band accompaniment, but this seems to capture the essence of the Bolero (plus I loved the video on You tube too.)         

   Acting on a hunch, which Conde feels as a searing angina, he begins to investigate exactly who Violeta Del Rio was.  Conde’s search for the elusive Bolerista leads him not only to the slums of present day Cuba, but into the past of Batistia Cuba, through the memories of an ancient Madame, Lotus Flower.
          this is an image of what I imagine Violeta Del Rio might have looked like.

   In true crime novel fashion, Conde could not just look for and find a very elderly Bolerista living in a slum.  While investigating the singer, he discovers that she died young, of an apparent overdose of cyanide.  Conde, after talking to several associates of Violeta, and further uncovering her life, finds this implausible.  Using his police connections, skills, and a cadre of life long friends, as well as a streak of stubborn-ness that is always admired by me, Conde moves seamlessly between the past, and the present with an ample dose of fine Cuban coffee and cigars.  Eventually he not only unravels the truth about Violeta Del Rio, but also about the marvelous books and the family behind them.

This book really gets 5 stars or 2 thumbs up  The story is engrossing, the writing is tight, and within the actual plot are observations that have stuck with me.  If you like Music,  and books, you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

Cuban Bolero Santiago 2001


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