Leonardo Padura Fuentes is the most widely known author working in Cuba today. He has written movie scripts, two books of short stories and a series of detective novels translated into 10 languages at last count. His political essays serve as teaching aides for university courses around the world.
Despite all this, Padura (as he calls himself) doesn't draw many visitors from abroad. Tourists rarely get anywhere close to his book-lined study in the working-class suburb of Mantilla. No, the crowds who come to Havana looking for a writer mostly come looking for Ernest Hemingway. They flock to the Floridita bar where he drank his frozen daiquiris. They cluster around the Ambos Mundos Hotel, Hemingway's first Cuban residence.
It's not surprising, then, that Leonardo Padura's prolific pen should take aim at the whole Hemingway-in-Cuba legend. It's a match-up that needed to happen hard-working Cuban author stands up to dead American icon. Native son goes toe-to-toe with celebrity expat. And yet "Adios, Hemingway", despite the seeming threat of its knock-out title, pulls more punches than it throws at old Papa. Padura is clearly more interested in understanding the legend than destroying it. "I wanted to write about a more real-life Hemingway," Padura says. "The novel focuses on the 1950s, when Hemingway was starting to face his two greatest fears: the inability to write and his own death."
"Adios, Hemingway" is a murder mystery, the fifth in the Mario Conde series (and Padura's first to have been translated into English, in 2005). Mario Conde is a cop who would rather be a writer, and admits to feelings of "solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards." Late-`50s Hemingway fit easily into all three categories, but there was a problem: he typically betrayed people who had been good to him, and that's something that Conde and his creator have trouble forgiving. So when Conde unearths a 40-year-old cadaver in Hemingway's backyard, he goes after his man with the zeal of a Philip Marlowe or any other fictional sleuth worth his salt.
Hemingway and Padura have some things in common: the beard, the occasional guayabera shirt, the keen interest in sports (Padura hoped to become a pro baseball player until he realised "I didn't have enough strength to be a good hitter"). Both men started out as journalists and let their reporter's eye lead them to a kind of fiction that strives, above all, to tell the truth. And both men chose to live and work away from Havana's center: Padura in the house, built by his grandfather, where he was born; Hemingway in his "Finca Vigia" (Lookout Farm), a 19th-century estate situated about 16 kilometres east of Havana.
The similarities end abruptly when it comes to matters of character. The hand-written sign on Hemingways' front gate read: "Uninvited visitors will not be received." Padura is an exceedingly generous host, a man who seems to like nothing better than devoting time to his guests, invited or not.
When asked to explain why he can't imagine leaving Havana, the setting for all his novels so far, Padura shrugs, than says, "I'm a talkative person. Havana is a place where you can always strike up a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop."