Leonardo Padura’s Recipe for Success: Turkey stuffed with rice and beans and other Cuban delights

“A turkey?”
“Stuffed?”
“Yes, and it’s very easy to make. I made garlic, pepper, cumin, oregano, bay, basil and parsley leaves into a paste and, naturally, bitter orange and salt and basted it well inside and out with that paste. Then I threw in plenty of big slices of onion.”
“Then, as I’d already got black beans on the boil, I started to prepare a tasty sauce: I took two strips of bacon I cut and cut into small pieces and fried, and put more onion in the fat, but cut tiny with ground garlic and plenty of chili, and there you go. I poured the sauce over the beans when they were almost cooked and added a cup of dry wine…”
“And what else?”
“Well, I poured in the white rice to make a congrí, a bit more oregano, and for good measure a pinch of salt and a handful of finely chopped onion. Then I waited for the rice to dry out, before the grains went soft, of course, and switched it off and stuffed the turkey with the congrí, so it cooks inside the bird. You know what I didn’t have? Toothpicks to close it up so I used a few stems from the bitter oranges…”

Leonardo Padura has been described as the Cuba’s answer to Dashiell Hammett. Not to take anything away from Hammett, but I believe Padura is a more rounded author. His influences include J.D. Salinger, Cervantes, Mozart, and Lennon (note: –non, not –in.)His prose is dense and the subject matter is in turns cerebral and muscular. Havana Red, originally titled Masks (Mascaras, in Spanish) deals with the death of a transvestite in a Havana park. Inspector Mario Conde, known as the Count, who is about as unpredictable as Sam Spade, is given the case. His superiors are not over eager to unearth the murderer of a person of such questionable morals—it is Cuba, after all. But the one way that Conde is predictable is in his tenacity in seeing his cases to the end. In the course of his investigations he comes into contact with an aging playwright who has been blacklisted for his moral turpitude and anti-socialist tendencies. The playwright, Marqués offers insights into the steamy underworld of Cuban artistic life. In so doing he sheds light on a case that just about everyone else is content to allow to remain in darkness.

The conversations between Marqués and the Count are illuminating in other ways as well. Through them we follow the brief renaissance and long decline in Cuban art after the overthrow of Batista in the late 50’s. Perhaps decline is too harsh. Sublimation might be a better word. As we learned from Ry Cooder’s visit to Cuba in the 90’s which resulted in the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, Cuban art is and has been very much alive. Only it is hidden from the outside world.

Bitter Lemon Press is taking steps to redress this imbalance. In addition to Havana Red, Havana Black and Havana Blue are now available in translation. The library owns a copy of an earlier Padura novel, Adiós, Hemingway.

Yoani Sanchez recently posted a tribute to “Leonardo Padura: The Man Who Loved Books” on her Huff Post blog.

[Reprint]