All good fiction reflects something of the character of the country it comes from. Only that seems more true of Cuban literature: religion, sex, politics, superstition, and a dark soul born out of a turbulent history. There is no writer that 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).
Paul Burke 5/4
Grab a Snake by the Tail by Leonardo Padura
Bitter Lemon Press 9781912242177 pbk May 2019