By Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush — For decades, glimpses into Cuban life were hard to come by, and for Americans will be harder to come by again with renewed travel restrictions. English-language crime fiction about contemporary Cuba, written by Cubans, also has been sparse, despite reader curiosity about a tropical culture with such a heady mix of Caribbean, Spanish, African, and Indian influences.
Leonardo Padura, whom the book jacket calls “Cuba’s most celebrated living author,” is the author of the Havana Quartet, crime novels that in their English versions each have a color in the title: Havana Gold, Havana Blue, Havana Red and Havana Black. Spanish-language television films were created from them, and they appeared on Netflix with English subtitles as Four Seasons in Havana. This police procedural follows the protagonist of those popular earlier works, police inspector Mario Conde, as he reminisces about a murder investigation from 30 years ago in Havana’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown).
Cuba’s significant Chinese community immigrated to the island under contracts that amounted to slave labor, and which led to the atmosphere of loneliness, contempt, and uprooting that forms the backdrop to the narrative and sets the stage for murder. Even in a culture where diverse racial and ethnic identities are a commonplace, the dirty, poverty-ridden Barrio Chino is considered mysterious and alien to most Havana residents.
Conde is persuaded to look into the murder by a beautiful African-Chinese police lieutenant Patricia Chion, about whom Conde has impure thoughts. Patricia tells him to engage her father, Juan, as his guide through the barrio’s labyrinthine streets and cultural ways. That’s because, as Conde says, “There were complications, as there almost always are in situations involving a chino.” (So evocative of the last line of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”)
Patricia explains that the dead man, Pedro Cuang, was a friend of her godfather and an acquaintance of her father, even though her father denies knowing him. That would be one of the complications.
Cuang was a retired dry cleaner, no family, living alone on a pension in a dingy one-room apartment. Conde visits that apartment, where the corpse has yet to be removed. He and his sergeant Manuel Palacios see the 73-year-old has been hanged, with a couple of peculiar flourishes: a severed index finger and a circle with two crossed arrows inside carved on his chest.
Crime was rampant in the Barrio Chino, but what Cuang’s link to it may have been is murky. As is the meaning of the strange symbols. In Havana, there are lots of possibilities: a Congolese practice called nganga, Yoruba santaria, voodoo, or some heretofore unknown Chinese witchcraft. Investigating these possibilities and their practitioners gives Padura an excuse to delve into them a bit. These interesting diversions into cultural anthropology aren’t distractions from the main thrust of the story. It needs them to move forward.
Grab a Snake by the Tail is short book that employs a somewhat literary style, appropriate for a cop who wants to be a writer. The translation seems good – you aren’t frequently reminded of it, at least. The characters, especially Conde, his aide Manuel, and his unofficial deputy, Juan Chion, engage in lively interplay. There’s some sex. You never have the sense detective Conde is in any serious, thriller-style danger. It’s more that you’re following him around a fascinating town trying to avoid the complications—criminal, female and cultural.
Photo: dimitrisvetsikas1969 from Pixabay.