By Leonardo Padura

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 525 pp

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Leonardo Padura


Is Leonardo Padura a time traveler? What prodigious research! What imagination! His renderings of life in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam come alive with rich photographic detail. We meet Rembrandt in his studio, a community of Sephardic Jews who have found a haven in the diaspora and walk through the streets bordering the canals with Elias, a young Jew and would-be painter who dares break the prohibition against worshipping icons by studying under The Maestro.

Here’s where the novel comes alive. Trouble is: this section of the book starts almost two hundred pages in. How many readers will make it this far?

Padura situates the action first in Cuba in 1939 with the tale of a young Jewish boy, Daniel, dispatched from Krakow to Cuba to live with his uncle. The rest of his family boards a boat to escape the Nazis that docks in Havana, where he waves to them from the dock. Unfortunately, this boat full of Jews is the infamous S.S. St. Louis carrying almost 1000 people. Prevented by Cuba from disembarking, turned away subsequently by Roosevelt and the U.S., it is ultimately forced to return to Europe and almost certain annihilation.

His father had thought the possession of an authentic Rembrandt passed on through the generations of his family would suffice to win his family’s freedom. But corrupt Cuban politicians confiscate the painting.

The author charts Daniel’s childhood, his marriage, his forced departure to Miami and is particularly interested in his conversion to Christianity and eventual return to the fold. After that fateful day on the docks of Havana, Daniel decides he is more Cuban than Jewish and wants no more of the pain and suffering, which seem to be a province of the Jewish people.

The book swerves to 2007-9 and the life of a starving ex-cop, Mario Conde, who is visited by Daniel’s son, hot on the trail of the famous Rembrandt, which has turned up in a London auction house. How did it make its way from Cuba to London? The reader becomes embroiled in the day-to-day life of Conde and his attempts to unravel the mystery. This section is full of details of life in Cuba among the lower classes, stressing the corruption and demoralization that predominate.

Then without warning we are deposited in the middle of Amsterdam to follow the footsteps of Daniel’s ancestor. He manages to apprentice with Rembrandt, serve as his model for Christ in the painting in question, but is forced to flee the wrath of his fellow Jews and certain excommunication. Leaving Holland, he lands in the midst of a pogrom –plagued Krakow, where he consigns the painting to the hands of a rabbi for safekeeping.

Soon we’re back in the present, dogging Conde’s footsteps as he goes about his semi-impoverished life, enriched primarily by his long-term friendships, his amorous relationship, his daily consumption of cheap rum. He becomes embroiled in trying to solve the disappearance of a young girl, which ties back again to the fortunes of the famous painting.

Padura is a much acclaimed novelist and journalist in Cuba and has written a series of novels with Mario Conde as his protagonist. We read his novel in translation here and wonder whether some of the infelicities of language and dense, unending sentences are due more to the difficulty of rendering Spanish phrases into English, than to any deficiency of his. Does his prose read more elegantly in his native language?

“From that vertiginous height, the view encompassed an exaggerated part of a tempting sea, crossed with incredibly precise swaths of color and shades invented by the ruthless scourge of the summer sun.” Sentences like this make for very rough going.

I found his writing style to be an impediment: very dense, heavy on philosophy, and difficult to plow through. I wondered where his ideal reader could be found, one eager to hack through the jungle of words. Anyone with ties to Cuba certainly, Cuban Jews especially, those interested in philosophical questions, especially the conflict between free will and unquestioning religious devotion, would be my guess. Padura makes it crystal clear that he sides with those who question the strictures of their faith and carve out their own paths to righteousness: The uncle who violates a commandment and has no regrets; Daniel who renounces his religion only to rejoin it years later; Elias who dares to defy his family and his religion in order to follow his artistic dreams.

“. . .Individual responsibility is the essence of our religion,” and, “Maintain your wisdom and always depart from evil. Your life is your life . . .And to not live it is to die in life, to anticipate death,” a rabbi counsels Elias. “There are inviolable Commandments relating to good and evil, but there is also a lot of space in life that should be only a question of the individual. And it would be worth it for a man to manage it freely, according to his will, just as it is: a question between him and God.”

Padura is a masterful writer, knitting all the strands of this complicated saga together. Next time, though, I will freshen up my Spanish and attempt to read him in the original version.

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