On 27 May 1939, the German liner St Louis docked in Havana with 937 passengers on board: all but a handful of them were Jews in flight from the Third Reich. After a dismal farrago of diplomatic obstruction, bare-faced corruption among local officials and the incitement by Nazi propaganda of anti-Semitic prejudice ‘even’ (as Leonardo Padura sorrowfully puts it) ‘among the open and happy Cubans’, only a score of refugees could disembark. The US refused entry to the rest. Their ship of despair sailed back to Europe.
Around this shaming episode, the genial gadfly of Cuban literature has built a digressive, eccentric but deeply absorbing novel: part-detective story, part-historical enquiry, part-reflection on the ‘sacred’ qualities of great art and human freedom. Best known for the ‘Havana Quartet’ of crime yarns, featuring his maverick investigator Mario Conde, Padura is a singular and admirable figure. Deaf to the siren call of exile, he has stayed put in his Havana neighbourhood of Mantilla to write novels that comprise a ribald, sensuous, offbeat chronicle of his nation as the revolutionary ideals of the Castro generation gave way to ‘a country falling apart in plain sight’. ‘Disillusioned and cynical’, its long-suffering folk can now feel both ‘freer and masters of themselves’: free to get rich, or go to hell just as they choose.
Now a freelance book-dealer (Havana’s mildewed private libraries abound in antiquarian gems), ex-Inspector Conde meets a ‘pony-tailed behemoth’ of an American artist called Elias Kaminsky in 2007. Elias’s father Daniel had come to Havana from Poland in the 1930s to join his leather-working Uncle Joseph (‘Pepe the Purseman’) in a ‘rowdy Jewish paradise’ of artisans and shopkeepers; most would quit Cuba when the revolution turned communist. Daniel’s doomed parents, we learn, arrived and departed on the ill-starred St Louis, but left behind an authentic Rembrandt — a study for a head of Christ. With this portable treasure, they planned to secure the family’s future.
The shadowy past of this painting becomes the Hitchcock-style ‘MacGuffin’ that steers the twisty plot of Heretics from one leisurely intrigue to another. Who kept it, who stole it, who killed or died for this little bombshell that expresses ‘the force of beauty that no legal authority could conquer’? We time-travel from Havana to 1640s Amsterdam, where a young Jew, also called Elias, impiously apprentices himself to the artist Rembrandt van Rijn — a firm friend to Elias’s community, in spite of his idolatrous profession.
Charming, rambling, erudite, Padura dwells on the gifts and costs of heretical liberty in art, politics and religion. ‘Being free,’ Elias comes to grasp, ‘is a war that must be fought every day’. Back in Havana, the quest for the painting’s whereabouts leads into the new Cuba’s subcultural tribes — emos, Goths and punks — and their self-harming ‘search for total freedom’. ‘Vampires, depressives and proud masochists?’ Conde wonders, baffled. ‘In this heat?’
As ever with Padura, our pleasure-loving but big-hearted sleuth guides readers through this humid labyrinth on a thread of streetwise decency. His plot may wander, his excursions dawdle, but the moral compass seldom shakes. ‘Without freedom,’ Rembrandt tells his pupil, ‘there is no art.’