From a Cuban nov­el­ist, the story of mankind’s quest for safe haven

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY CHARLES LANE book­world@wash­ Charles Lane is a mem­ber of The Wash­ing­ton Post’s ed­i­to­rial board.

Some 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple have fled Cuba since Fidel Cas­tro’s revo­lu­tion in 1959. But there was a time, not that long ago, when refugees flowed to­ward the Caribbean is­land.

In 1939, the ocean liner St. Louis left Hamburg, in Nazi Ger­many, bound for Havana — with more than 900 Jews on board. They hoped to en­ter Cuba en route to per­ma­nent places in the United States.

Cor­rupt and in­flu­enced by anti-Semitic pub­lic opin­ion, Cuban authorities of the time barred all but a hand­ful of the St. Louis’s pas­sen­gers. Of those turned away, none were ad­mit­ted to the United States, some even­tu­ally found safe haven in Europe, and 254 died in the Holo­caust.

This se­quence of events, laden with irony as well as sor­row, opens the gor­geous, sweep­ing new novel from Cuba’s Leonardo Padura.

“Heretics” is part his­tory, part de­tec­tive story, but its over­ar­ch­ing theme is the ten­sion be­tween the lim­it­less yearn­ings of the hu­man spirit and the lim­i­ta­tions of ge­og­ra­phy and politics. Padura, born in Cuba in 1955 and still a res­i­dent there, pos­sesses in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the mat­ter.

A free per­son, he writes, “acts, lives, and thinks ac­cord­ing to his con­science.” By that def­i­ni­tion, few ter­ri­to­ries in his­tory have been gov­erned by laws en­abling most peo­ple to live freely most of the time. Hence, the des­per­ate pere­gri­na­tions of ves­sels like the St. Louis, or of the rick­ety rafts aboard which so many of Padura’s coun­try­men have es­caped.

Across the cen­turies, in preWorld War II Cuba, in 17th-cen­tury Am­s­ter­dam and back in Cuba of the present day, Padura’s char­ac­ters strug­gle and roam, seek­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally find­ing refuges in which they may live ac­cord­ing to the prompt­ings of their own hearts.

Some of them, like the young son who waits in Havana for his par­ents to ar­rive on the St. Louis, only to be dis­ap­pointed, are Jews, his­tory’s quin­tes­sen­tial heretics. Oth­ers, like a girl who sud­denly van­ishes from high school in com­mu­nist Cuba, are sim­ply un­ac­cept­ably ec­cen­tric, ac­cord­ing to the authorities. In their dif­fer­ent ways, they ex­pe­ri­ence the same agony — “forced to go through the world with two faces,” caught be­tween sub­mis­sion and self-ex­pres­sion, pre­tend­ing to be­lieve what they don’t, or to be some­thing they re­ally aren’t.

Padura’s most bril­liantly por­trayed mis­fit is a young Jewish painter in Am­s­ter­dam, striv­ing for great­ness un­der the tute­lage of Rem­brandt — only to be driven into ex­ile by doc­tri­naire rab­bis who con­sider his work trans­gres­sive. This, too, is a pow­er­ful irony: re­li­gious in­tol­er­ance by a group that owes its pres­ence in the Netherlands to Dutch re­li­gious tol­er­ance. Am­s­ter­dam could be a “New Jerusalem” only for those will­ing to toe a certain line.

This im­plicit but clear par­al­lel to the re­pres­sive turn taken by revolutionary Cuba is one of many in Padura’s book. His de­scrip­tion of rab­bis ran­sack­ing the young painter’s Am­s­ter­dam home for for­bid­den writ­ings and draw­ings eerily re­calls an in­fa­mous 1971 in­ci­dent when Cas­tro’s se­cret po­lice burst into the dis­si­dent poet He­berto Padilla’s apart­ment, look­ing for his draft of a pro­scribed novel. They found it hid­den be­hind a paint­ing.

Padura’s lib­erty to pub­lish lit­er­a­ture that prob­a­bly would have been banned as coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary in Padilla’s time is it­self a bit of a mys­tery. Suf­fice it to say that Cuba has changed and that Padura him­self has care­fully avoided certain taboos, such as di­rect crit­i­cism of the Cas­tro fam­ily. Like the Rem­brandt of his novel, who ma­neu­vers among Am­s­ter­dam’s po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial pow­ers for the sake of his art, Padura seems to have set his sights on tran­scend­ing his is­land na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, rather than de­fy­ing it. The case for “Heretics” — like the case for “The Man Who Loved Dogs” (2009), Padura’s his­tor­i­cal novel about the Trot­sky as­sas­si­na­tion — is that the fight for free­dom re­quires not only con­fronta­tion but il­lu­mi­na­tion, of the kind only lit­er­a­ture can pro­vide.

The un­cer­tain fate of a price­less paint­ing — made in Rem­brandt’s stu­dio, passed down through gen­er­a­tions of Jews, then mis­placed in Cuba as a con­se­quence of the St. Louis in­ci­dent — con­nects Padura’s mul­ti­ple plot­lines and sup­plies the book’s sub­stan­tial, sat­is­fy­ing nar­ra­tive ten­sion.

Yet the novel’s true sub­ject is hu­mankind’s need, in all times, in all places, to “live in truth,” as the Czech dis­si­dent Va­clav Havel put it.

Un­der certain cir­cum­stances, whether in tol­er­ant Am­s­ter­dam, com­mu­nist Cuba or, for that mat­ter, to­day’s tur­bu­lent United States, any­one can be a heretic — or be­come one. Some peo­ple, in fact, can’t help it. The ques­tion is what any of us is pre­pared to do about it.

Leonardo Padura, born in Cuba in 1955 and still a res­i­dent there, seems to have set his sights on tran­scend­ing his is­land na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, rather than de­fy­ing it.

HERETICS By Leonardo Padura Trans­lated from Span­ish by Anna Kush­ner FSG. 528 pp. $28

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