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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Intersection: What Detroit Has Gained, and Lost, 50 years after the Uprisings of 1967

By Bridge Magazine and the Detroit Journalism Collective

Published by Mission Point Press | 2017

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

For five days in July, 1967, Detroit was an inferno of flames, a city militarized by the local and state police, National Guardsmen, and troops from the 82nd and 101st airborne units. “The Motor City is burning,” sang bluesman, John Lee Hooker, and his song was the soundtrack to the days of rage that engulfed a town many social planners had perceived as a model city. That perception was as nearsighted as that of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and all but a few of his aides.

If Cavanagh had listened to Conrad Mallet, Sr., one of his top officials, Detroit might have been better prepared to deal with the upheaval, might have paid more attention to the turmoil simmering in the precincts of a city beset with high unemployment, poor housing conditions, and a police force known for its rampant brutality.

For example, the summer before, on the city’s Eastside, conflict between the neighborhood’s black youths and the police was narrowly averted, thanks to a torrential downpour.

But the rain did not come and dampen the hostility that erupted after the police raided a “blind pig,” an after-hours joint, at the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount, on the city’s near Westside.

It is from this location that the book The Intersection—What Detroit Has Gained and Lost, 50 Years After the Uprisings of 1967 gets its title. Most of the pieces in the compendium’s eight chapters and 200 odd pages were written by Bill McGraw of Bridge Magazine and Lester Graham of Michigan Radio. The overall format shifts from magazine styled stories to incisive studies to extended commentaries, and concludes with a compelling article by McGraw, a former longtime reporter of the Detroit Free Press about a man who claims to have started the rebellion. No spoiler on this.

And to call the incident a rebellion is terminology promulgated by the city’s radical community, and in the pages of The Intersection, the definition of what happened in Detroit is either a rebellion, riot, uprising, insurrection or civil disturbance or unrest—no matter how the ravage was defined, it still resonates in a variety of ways, and this book is another insight into a quest for the truth.

Currently, in the works, is a major motion picture directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker. Her production is the source of much controversy from a coterie of Detroit activists and artists who have assailed the film they have not seen, which is slated for an August release. They contend the film has little influence from Detroiters—it is being filmed in Boston, features no Detroiters among the credits nor are they behind the cameras or employed as consultants.

Moreover, if the trailer is any indication, the tragedy at the Algiers Motel where three young black men were killed by the police, drives the film. As The Intersection notes—and it offers its own analysis—the conflict at the motel is but a bloody piece of the puzzle.

The book is a collective effort under the aegis and guidance of Bridge Magazine and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, and that collaborative approach gives the project the scope and investigation needed to answer how Detroit has changed—for better or worse—since the rebellion.

In his Foreword, noted journalist Stephen Henderson dips into the question and posits this about the book: “The deep poverty and isolation that traps so many is on more minds now, and was deeply explored through stories and discussions. The tattered remains of the city’s school system and the victim of such cynical disinvestment are detailed through vivid example and narrative. And, the imbalance in the criminal justice system—the very ones that led police to the aggressive behavior that started the uprising—are still with us, documented so meticulously in these pages.” In effect, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Intersection is a fair estimate of the city’s conditions politically, economically, and culturally, and if it doesn’t have explicit remedies to the problems continuing to plague the city, there are chapters discussing possible avenues to improve the city and certainly the relationship between the majority black population and law enforcement.

No one book or research project can provide the answers to Detroit’s complexity of issues, and The Intersection is quick to acknowledge its shortcomings. “This book represents the culmination of our reporting in 2016, the year leading up to the 50th anniversary of what came to be known as ‘the Detroit riot’,” the authors write in the Introduction. “It’s also work that is not yet complete.”

Nor is the restoration, the revitalization of Detroit complete, but like The Intersection, some major steps have been taken and we await the promise both projects envision.

(Herb Boyd is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review.)

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THE AMBULANCE DRIVERS: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War

By James McGrath Morris

Da Capo Press | 2017

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

TWO WRITERS: Works and Days

It’s been going on for as long as most of us have been alive. Even longer. The Hemingway Mystique is a publishing phenomenon every bit as real as the Elvis Mystique in the world of music. And this season is no different – a slew of new biographies recently appeared and Papa is at the center of each one of them.

Biographer James McGrath Morris is to be commended for doing something unusual and highly necessary. Rather than merely recycle aspects or elements of the all-too-familiar Hemingway legend, what McGrath has done is focus with superlative intent on recapitulating how the First World War galvanized the coming-of-age of young Hemingway. And yet, there is much more here to learn from.

Because McGrath has woven together two coming-of-age stories and the other topic is long overdue for a revival, both in terms of readership and scholarship. John Dos Passos, who once upon a time was as famous as Hemingway, Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (in 1936 it was John Dos Passos who made the cover of Time Magazine), was not just another writer who knew Hemingway or who served in the Great War.

The value of this important new biography is that we are reminded of how much has been lost—for decades—as the Hemingway Industry stayed in overdrive, while the great and good works of John Dos Passos were gradually consigned to oblivion.

Let’s shine a light on the books. Yes, there remains little doubt that young Ernest Hemingway revolutionized how the English language could be used in short stories and novels. And no doubt about it, some of those early stories (“Big Two-Hearted River” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”) and the novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms remain the landmarks in literature that they always were.

However, it is a cultural crime that for all the wrong reasons, the equally bold, equally innovative, and in some ways far more daring narrative achievements of John Dos Passos have been eclipsed in college courses and forgotten by readers.

A quick recap: John Dos Passos was a few years older than Hemingway, and zipped through Harvard prior to volunteering as an ambulance driver in World War One. Dos Passos found himself “over there” in 1916, two years earlier than Hemingway. And it was Dos Passos who had a much more traumatic eyewitness exposure to the insane strategies, the mindless slaughter of endless thousands of young men at Verdun, and all the other scabrous details of the Great War’s demonic mayhem.

Nonetheless, even though he was appalled and stricken by the First World War’s colossal destructive force (all of which still affects the geopolitics of our world), Dos Passos wanted to see it up close, and he knew it would induce his writer’s quest.

That’s the key to what bonded Hemingway and Dos Passos. Both young men made a decisive effort to enlist as volunteer ambulance drivers to accelerate how quickly they’d be able to get assignments overseas to witness the war. And their very different emotional and psychological and social backgrounds had much to do with how varied their reactions to the war turned out to be. But it bonded them as men.

On the Italian front, in 1918, where Hemingway would be wounded by shellfire and where his own legend would commence (newspapers in Italy and America made a big story out of a badly wounded Ernest carrying an unconscious, wounded Italian soldier to safety), there was a brief encounter between Hemingway and Dos Passos.

But it was after the war, in Paris in the early 1920s, that the two emerging writers became the best of friends. And travel companions. Kindred spirits in every way. They both were setting out to alter and even reinvent American fiction. And when books, writing, revising, and haggles with publishers did not preoccupy them, they had their new wives and varied European travels and adventures to share.

As for reconfiguring American fiction writing, there is no question but that they both succeeded. Even now, nearly a century after the vaunted Paris in the Twenties glow, the crisp, angular, simple declarative sentences of Hemingway’s early work startles readers with its clarity, precision, and mastery of movement.

But John Dos Passos?

We have all been cheated. And the legacy of Dos Passos has been cheated most of all. Because his extraordinary writing experiments—especially the ways in which he used newspaper clips, song lyrics, historical quotations and visual montage from American lore to illuminate and illustrate the radical changes in life at large, as the USA was transformed by urban and technological developments occurring at warp speed in the postwar years—well, those unique achievements have never been given the chronic attention and the adulation that Hemingway still receives.

If there were any justice beneath the moon, the best novels by John Dos Passos (Manhattan Transfer and Three Soldiers, for starters, and also the three major works later collected as the U.S.A. trilogy: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) would be as familiar as For Whom the Bell Tolls. They certainly used to be.

In this excellent new biography by James McGrath Morris, we get a first-rate assessment of how and why and when the varied novels of John Dos Passos generated such controversy, hefty sales, and critical respect in the 1920s and the 1930s. It’s clear that in many ways, Dos Passos took bigger risks as a writer than Hemingway.

Yet, unlike Papa, there was no ferocious competitive edge to Dos Passos. He didn’t cultivate media attention like Ernest, who with his exploits as a hunter or fisherman or boxing-and-bullfighting aficionado did much to create the very notion of the celebrity writer as a public figure. And, of course, the novels of John Dos Passos were never made into films – whereas A Farewell to Arms became a hit movie with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes only three years after the book came out. In subsequent decades, almost all of Hemingway’s novels became popular movies.

But there’s more. The lousy truth is that as he aged, and particularly in the years after the Second World War, the formerly Left, radical, progressive politics of John Dos Passos moved to the Right. And the schnooks of academe never forgave that.

There is no more intelligently pulverizing and truly anti-war novel of WW I than Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos. His indictment of military obtuseness and the dehumanizing effects of conscription and trench war remain staggering. But it’s the romance of Hemingway’s wounded soldier and his nurse in A Farewell to Arms that sticks in the national consciousness. As Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.”

We have lost a great deal by not paying more attention to the life and work of John Dos Passos. This new book helps us to rectify that error. To follow the lives of these two male authors as the First World War gave way to the Roaring Twenties and the postwar Paris epoch, and then the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War (the 1936-1939 crucible that both intensified and sundered the fragile rapport of Hemingway and Dos Passos) is to relive half of the twentieth century.

And just because John Dos Passos wrote articles for William F. Buckley’s National Review in the 1950s and 1960s is no reason to ignore his trailblazing novels. One hundred years from now, when readers want a wide-angle view on how lives were lived and lost in the years between 1914 and 1950 (more or less), it will be the novels and journalism of John Dos Passos that are ascertained as revelatory.

Hemingway will always be important. But the most important thing about this new biography is that it reminds us that reading John Dos Passos is even more essential.

M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review.

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