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Leonardo Padura. Photo: EFE
Leonardo Padura. Photo: EFE

Leonardo Padura: "The homeland belongs to no one and it belongs to everyone"

In his latest novel, Como polvo en el viento, Leonardo Padura travels through almost 60 years of Cuban history, turning memory into a heartbeat and bridge…

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Leonardo Padura has the virtue of the best writers. The same makes us walk through the darkest alleys of Havana with detective Mario Conde, who investigates the vital twists and turns of Trotsky's Catalan killer. His latest novel, Como polvo en el viento (Like Dust in the Wind, Tusquets 2020), traces Cuban history through the lives of a group of friends who met in the 1960s at the University of Havana and, with the exception of the group's linchpin, Clara, went into exile. 

It is also the story of Adela, a young Cuban American living in New York who perceives her origins are not as she was told. 

It's a novel, in short, that deals with love and indifference, friendship, over and above traditions, infidelities and obstacles. But also, of course, about a homeland and the complex relationship we have with it.

"The homeland is a place, a city, a house, but it is also a concept that does not always manifest itself with the same qualities, even when some of them are permanent," said Leonardo Padura, for whom the emigrants and expatriates have more complicated links with origin because, as recalled in Como polvo en el viento, "no one leaves the place where he is happy,"

The way in which the Cuban develops the trauma of exile in the novel is as diverse as the situations experienced by its characters, who even spread out over cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Paris or New York, remain united through memory. 

"I try, as Flaubert said, to reach the soul of things through the soul of the characters... From denial and hate, to indifference or nostalgia: all are forms of expressing that love or dislike, and I believe that all are valid, because if we want to defend our freedom of choice and opinion, we must respect that of others, even when we don't agree," he warned. Because "the homeland belongs to no one and it belongs to everyone, and each one can have a particular relationship with it."

A visible majority

Como polvo en el viento is a great kaleidoscope of stories that are, in essence, the history of Cuba from the time of the Revolution to present day. It is an intergenerational testimony that addresses the differential character of the new generation of Cuban exiles, whether in the United States or in Cuba, who are children of another world and other experiences. Although, the writer maintains, this does not always mean that their relationship with the island is different or more loving than that of the so-called "historical Cuban exile" of the 1960s.

"In Miami, for example, there is everything, from fundamentalists to indifferent people, and these recent times of political confrontation within the United States have shown it, have strengthened it," assured the writer, who hopes at some point the two countries will reach a point of convergence and harmony will prevail. 

But are young Cubans the hope for a more harmonious future between the U.S. and Cuba?

"Perhaps many things would have to change in Cuba, also in exile, but I do not cease to see that conciliation as a necessity and as the best solution for the country's destiny. And the old exiles will no longer be able to play a leading role in this process, but those new generations who perhaps are more pragmatic, less passionate, more unprejudiced. But sometimes I lose that hope: there is too much fundamentalism inside and outside of Cuba, among other reasons because fundamentalism pays some," he said.

"Obama's policy put the Cuban government in a more difficult position than Trump's extreme positions."

It's a division orchestrated from within power over which the specter of the Cold War hangs and has led many Cubans living in the United States — "at least a visible majority," the writer said — to express their support for Donald Trump during the election campaign. He, in turn, has used, as is always the case at election time, the island as a weapon. 

"Trump has made the embargo policy much tougher and, for example, sending some money to Cuba has become very complicated and right now almost impossible, and Cuba, but above all, many Cubans, need that money and . But Trump's speech and his policy are the same as those of Reagan, the Bushes, etc., etc., and... I think Obama's policy put the Cuban government in a more difficult position than Trump's extreme positions," said Padura.

Censorship and its gaps

Since Decree 349, which imposes restrictions on artistic creation in Cuba and requires artists to obtain government permission to exhibit their work, was approved, many have sought to see the end of the golden age of Cuban culture. The same culture that made writers like Hemingway fall in love with the country and was the homeland — and sometimes the dungeon — of Latin America's best storytellers, such as Alejo Carpentier, Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera and, of course, Leonardo Padura. 

For the writer, who has always defended he would not leave the island because his prose is to Cuba and only makes sense in the country, the law that has not yet come into force is "a very powerful alarm signal." 

"The strange thing is that one wants to implement with the character of a law something that exists in the practice of Cuban cultural policy, which is the possibility of controlling what is exhibited, consumed, and culturally disseminated on the island - even though that fabric has more and more holes, and works of all kinds circulate through alternative channels" thanks to new technologies, he said. 

"This decree is not going to stop the creative process of Cuban artists, even though it may complicate our existence".

As is already happening with Como polvo en el viento, which many people in Cuba are reading in a pirated digital version. And the same thing, Padura assured, happened before with the film, Return to Ithaca, which the writer scripted and when it was finally scheduled for a couple of afternoons, half of Cuba had already seen it through alternative channels.

"This decree that recalls the policies practiced in the 1970s, during that Black Decade of Cuban culture, is not going to stop the process of creation of Cuban artists. It won't stop those who live outside the island, of course, and neither will those of us who live inside, even though it may complicate our existence a bit," he stated.

Moreover, Padura added that the role of Cuban creators must be to commit to their work and not allow control mechanisms to limit the expression and practice of their freedom.

The return of Mario Conde

Currently, Leonardo Padura is immersed in writing another novel that brings together his mythical character, Mario Conde, with the most influential Cuban pimp of the 19th century, Alberto Yarini, who once dreamed of becoming president. 

It's a character he had written about before and who for Padura represents a historical moment of great national frustration and social disconcert. 

"He recalls that after four decades of struggle for independence, Cuba was born as a state in 1902 with a denigrating constitutional amendment, which allowed the United States to intervene in the island's affairs whenever it wished (and it did so in 1906), with war veterans almost as beggars or turned into politicians with very few scruples, with deplorable levels of racial discrimination. A frustrated dream. And in that country that is beginning to seek forms of modernization, where money can be earned by any means, suddenly there is a pimp, nothing more and nothing less than a pimp, who in his social and political activity embodies a certain dose of dignity and populist patriotism. This symbol or synthesis of the moment will serve me, I hope, to talk about this and other frustrations of Cuban dreams throughout our history," summarized the writer.

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