If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Havana as you feel/see it?
I try to reflect the life of a city through stories, characters, descriptions. Havana is a very diverse, contradictory, attractive, even magical city. It’s a city that faces the sea but that turns its back on that sea in many ways. It’s a city full of palaces but half of its houses could tumble down if a powerful hurricane comes through. It’s a city where everyone knows how to read and write, where there are dozens of thousands of college students, and where people urinate on the street because there are no public bathrooms. It’s a crazy city but it has soul, and not every city in the world can say that it has soul. While seeking that soul, the essence of Havana, its heart, I try to reflect it, not make it a background, but rather a character in many of my novels.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
It may be walking up Calzada de 10 de Octubre, formerly Calzada de Jesús del Monte, which connects the city from north to south, or vice-versa, and which today is destroyed, in the throes of death due to the authorities’ lack of interest, for decades, in saving Havana.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The wonders of the façades of Havana’s second stories—because it is modeled after European cities, it has many narrow streets in the older areas, and this generally makes people focus on what is next to them, and not above them. But there are second and third stories, balconies, roofs, eaves in Havana that are spectacular, surprises that reveal the city’s material and spiritual richness. And the most interesting thing is that this doesn’t just happen in the areas that were more aristocratic but in all of Havana prior to 1920 . . . which is very big. It takes up a lot of space considering how small the island is.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Havana has many great writers, who have created the city with their books, even if many of them may not have been born in Havana. In the nineteenth century, Cirilo Villaverde described Havana like no one else; in the twentieth century, Alejo Carpentier made an epic of the city; later, Guillermo Cabrera Infante built the city with words, with “literary Havana” language. But these are not the only great authors from, or who have written about, Havana. There is a beautiful and long poem by Eliseo Diego entitled “On Calzada de Jesús del Monte,” written at the end of the 1940s, that must be responsible for the feeling evident in my description of that Havana street . . . because the truth is, it’s not only that street that is in the throes of death through oblivion.
Is there a place here you return to often?
I return quite often to Finca Vigía, the house where Hemingway lived in Havana for almost twenty years. It’s at the edge of the city, in a small place called San Francisco de Paula. Years ago, I used to go to feel the power of Hemingway’s spirit, which you can still breathe in there. But later, when my relationship with the writer went from romantic to critical, I went just to feel envy: that house is the best house a writer could have in Havana.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Maybe el Malecón. It’s the border between the city and the sea. It’s the beginning or the end, depending on how you want to view it. Since it’s a misunderstood, mysterious, open, promising, and frustrating place, all at the same time, it has been described and used as background or a theme in so much Cuban literature.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
I don’t know if they’re hidden, but they are places that are spoken of very little. There’s Havana’s Forest, on the banks of the Almendares River, just before it reaches the sea (and which I use in one of the scenes of my novel Havana Red). There’s the old neighborhood of San Isidro, which was the city’s red-light district at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. It’s also where José Martí, the apostle of Cuban independence and a worldly Havanan, was born in 1853; and where Alberto Yarini, Cuban history’s most famous pimp, who hoped or dreamed to become the president of the Republic, died in1910. And there’s my neighborhood, Mantilla, where I was born and where I still live (in the same house). It’s a seductive and friendly place, although my wife says it is horrible and ugly.
Where does passion live here?
It lives in the people, of course. Those who live in the city today and who lived in it previously, for more than four, almost five, centuries. All of those people, with their passion, built the city and gave it that soul that defines it, its culture, its way of being, its way of speaking and feeling.
What is the title of one of your works about Havana and what inspired it exactly?
There is a lot of poetry about Havana, like the already mentioned poem by Eliseo Diego. But there is also a lot of prose. So to be a little different, I am going to recall a story about Havana that I especially like. It is entitled “The Night of Ramón Yendía” and was written in the 1940s by Lino Novás Calvo, who was born in the region of Galicia in Spain. It’s the story of a taxi driver who is chased by men who want to kill him because they think he’s an informer. The taxi driver flees in his car and while he drives, describes a Havana at eye-level, while also making a labyrinth of the streets that are simultaneously his refuge and his prison. Havana is essential in that story, which is, in my opinion, the best one written in the entire history of Cuban literature.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Havana does an outside exist?”
There is always a great beyond. The infinite exists. In the case of Havana, the great beyond consists of other fabulous cities like Barcelona and Madrid, like Amsterdam, like Venice and Florence, or Paris. All of these cities have inspired me at some point, and I’ve written about them, but without feigning to discover them. Because to discover a city, the soul of a city, you have to live there for many years.
Translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner
Leonardo Padura was born in Havana, Cuba in 1955. A novelist, journalist, and critic, he is the author of several novels, two volumes of short stories, and several nonfiction collections. His novels featuring the detective Mario Conde have been translated into many languages and have won literary prizes around the world. The Man Who Loved Dogs, translated by Anna Kushnerl, was a finalist for the Book of the Year Award in Spain.
Join us on February 26 in NYC for a reading from The Man Who Loved Dogs followed by a discussion with Leonardo Padura, translator Anna Kushner, and WWB reviews editor Jonathan Blitzer. More details here.
When: February 26, 7 PM
Where: 61 Local, 61 Bergen Street, Brooklyn
How to get there: F/G to Bergen Street stop
Published Feb 20, 2014 Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal