‘Heretics,’ Stories from Cuba
Heretics: A Novel By Leonardo Padura. Translated by Anna Kushner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 528 pp. $28)
Can a novel be too much of a good thing? That thought kept occurring to me as I read award-winning Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s Heretics.
This recent work featuring former Havana cop Mario Conde is divided into three novel-length sections. In the first, “The Book of Daniel,” Mario is visited by Elias Kaminsky, who wants his help in solving a riddle. In 1939, Elias’s father, Daniel, came as a young boy to Cuba from Poland, awaiting the arrival of the rest of his family. When his parents and younger sister followed, sailing into Havana Harbor aboard the S.S. St. Louis, they brought with them a Rembrandt painting, a priceless heirloom that had been in the family for almost three centuries. Their dreams, however, were shattered when the passengers were refused entry to Cuba (and to the United States). Forced to return to Europe, nearly all, including the Kaminsky family, perished in concentration camps.
The painting, meanwhile, vanished. Now, nearly seven decades later, the Rembrandt shows up for auction in London. Elias wants the private investigator to find out where the Rembrandt has been and how it ended up where it is now.
Padura switches effortlessly between old and contemporary Cuba and between the stories of Daniel and Elias. But before it reaches a denouement, the author starts the second section, “The Book of Elias.” This story is set in mid-17th-century Amsterdam, where Rembrandt uses an apprentice, Elias Ambrosius Montalbo de Avila, a young Jew, as a model for a series of paintings of Jesus’ head.
This plot is reminiscent of Chaim Potok’s book My Name Is Asher Lev, as Elias is likewise caught between his passion for art and his faith. Jews are relatively secure in the city they call the New Jerusalem, but still it is a turbulent time. Baruch Spinoza is excommunicated for suggesting Judaism and reason are mutually exclusive. Young Elias knows that he, too, risks alienation from family
Finally, there is “The Book of Judith,” in which Mario searches for a missing girl and, in the process, discovers what happened to the Kaminsky family’s Rembrandt.
There is much to praise in Heretics, particularly in the second book, where Padura enlivens his story with real people and events. In the stories that take place in Cuba, he brings to life the country’s sights, sounds and customs. Finally, he demonstrates substantial knowledge of Judaism, its traditions and values and presents them with great sympathy.
What works against Heretics, however, is its length. At one point, Conde interrupts Kaminsky’s “interminable story…so that I can understand something.” Readers will concur. Then there are his 60-, 70- and 80-word sentences, which are exhausting to read.
More’s the shame, since his enthusiasm, compassion and soul are all in the right place.
Curt Schleier, a freelance writer, teaches business writing to corporate executives.