Grab a Snake by the Tail

All good fiction reflects the character of its country of birth. This is very true of Cuban literature; religion, sex, politics, superstition, machismo, beauty and a dark soul born out of a turbulent history. There is no writer speaks to this more truthfully than Leonardo Padura. He has been described as the most important living Cuban novelist, not the kind of plaudit normally proffered to a crime writer, but Padura is a rare kind of crime novelist. His tools are those of the Noirist but honed with such an acute perception, a gritty intensity, and a deep understanding of the character of Havana, his homeland and the people of Cuba. Padura’s writing is as insightful as anything you will find in a contemporary literary fiction. Mario Conde, his central character, undergoes a journey in this detective series as profound as most self-explorations.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is the investigation of the brutal ritual murder of a Chinese man in the Chinese quarter of Havana. Detective Mario Conde has to crack a wall of silence and mistrust to solve the crime. There’s an impenetrable gulf of trust between the Cuban authorities and the minority Chinese community, outsiders are unwelcome. This novel is about cultural difference, perceptions of race and racism, both overt and unconscious. Padura has a way of presenting a stereotype operating on a shallow level before exposing the trope 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 realises the people of the Barrio Chino are as complex as the Cuban population with as many reasons for murder too; revenge, ambition, greed, jealousy, misguided loyalty. This case is as complex, (not stereotypical), and commonplace, (human motivations are universal).

Conde is a detective, and a would be writer, 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 it brings, 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 and 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, however, some of Conde’s observations come in retirement many years later date. It adds a different perspective but the complexity is a little disjointed. In the introduction Padura explains that the Chinese quarter is all but gone now, these are only a few decrepit signs of the old Chinese shops and businesses. In the novel Conde discovers this for himself when he reflects on the past, he is no longer a policeman but for his own curiosity is investigating the 1950s disappearance of bolero singer Victoria del Rio.

1989 is on the cusp of the great economic crash that came with the collapse of Russian support while the Americans stuck to their punishing, punitive embargo. Havana is a city in decline, fading colonial houses and crumbling apartment blocks from the 1920s and 30s. The small Chinese enclave is a slum and when a man is hanged in a boarding house at the heart of that 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. The retired Conde has long since stopped seeing the communist state as a socialist idyll, the country’s new rulers are; corrupt, cynical, nepotistic and devoid of morality. Yet life goes on, Cubans 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 Chine 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 Conde realises that he won’t solve the case unless he can understand the community. Pedro Cuang’s death 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 here as a child, he returned to China only once, last year. If he had money, why did he come back to this squalor?

Grab a Snake by the Tail is pitted with black humour, this is noir as the gods intended it to be. It isn’t the best of the Conde novels but it is intelligent and insightful, it will have you examining your own prejudices and assumptions. Conde is a compelling character and 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).

Translated by Peter Bush

Bitter Lemon Press 9781912242177 pbk May 2019

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