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Writer Leonardo Padura tests US literary waters, charts course as Cuban public intellectual

Cuban author Leonardo Padura speaks during an interview in Coral Gables, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Padura has carved a space that few writers in Cuba after the revolution have managed to attain: that of a public intellectual, at once accepted by — and critical of — Cuban society. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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Cuban author Leonardo Padura speaks during an interview in Coral Gables, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Padura has carved a space that few writers in Cuba after the revolution have managed to attain: that of a public intellectual, at once accepted by — and critical of — Cuban society. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

MIAMI - Sitting in the courtyard of a picturesque Miami bookstore cafe, Cuban writer Leonardo Padura chuckles between drags on a cigarette.

Nearly all his life, he explains, has taken place in one Havana neighbourhood.

It is there, in Mantilla, where he was born, raised, married and wrote the detective novels that have won him international acclaim. He still lives in his childhood home and likes sitting on a small bench in front of a new candy store that opened across the street and listening to the chatter of customers.

His neighbours call him "the famous writer."

"But I am lucky," he says, "because they also still know me as my mother and father's son."

Padura has carved a space that few writers in Cuba after the revolution have managed to attain: that of a public intellectual, at once accepted by — and critical of — Cuban society.

Now, at the height of his literary career, he is on a tour in the United States, visiting Miami, New York and Chicago. His critically acclaimed "The Man Who Loved Dogs" has been translated into English and published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Well-known in academic and Spanish-language literary circles, the hope is that his work will appeal to a wider U.S. market as well. "The Man Who Loved Dogs" has recently been translated into English and published in the U.S.

"I think American audiences are intrigued by his detective novels," said Ana Mario Dopico, a professor of comparative literature at New York University. "He brings a breath of fresh air to a very over-determined reading of Cuba which is very hyper-political, very Cold War."

The principal character of Padura's work is Mario Conde, a downtrodden detective solving crimes in the underbelly of post-Soviet Union Cuban society.

Through Conde's investigations, the contradictions and shortcomings of a revolution in decline are laid bare. Yet his novels are also never overtly political. Padura himself takes great pains to state that he himself does not identify with any political party, nor the state or the country's dissidents. He sees himself simply as a chronicler of modern Cuban life.

"If there is any positive effect my work can have, it's in the act of being independent," he says. "Of having a stance, a mindset, a space, that is free from political preferences."

Born in 1955, Padura is part of the first generation to grow up with no or little memory of life before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. He came of age when the Caribbean island still benefited from Soviet support and launched his literary career during the Special Period, the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His four Mario Conde crime novels were all published in the 1990s, a time when a limited tolerance for criticism within the arts began to emerge. Padura acknowledges that the situation before then was dramatically different. Writers like Reinaldo Arenas who condemned the Communist government were jailed, and their work was difficult or impossible to find on the island.

Today writers like Padura, Wendy Guerra or Pedro Juan Gutierrez can get away with casting a critical eye. Freedom is, however, still a tenuous concept.

"It's a country that is governed by the party, and that party is of a socialist bent where there are still expressions of individual freedom that are not understood because they are considered aggressions against the party, the state, the government, which also represent the nation," Padura says.

Part of the reason he has negotiated those boundaries successfully may lie in his choice of genre. The detective novel unveils hidden worlds, friends who betray, untrustworthy authorities, and is also a genre that allows a writer to "talk about politics without being political," Dopico said.

But while Padura has been published without harassment in Cuba, he has not been promoted in the official media as often or as enthusiastically as other writers whose works are less scrutinizing of life in Cuba, Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College said.

"Padura can publish a book like 'The Man Who Loved Dogs' but that book will not be reviewed in any of the newspapers or mentioned on the television or radio," Henken said. "At the same time Padura can be named and win the national literary award, which he won last year."

"The Man Who Loved Dogs" weaves the stories of Leon Trotsky, his assassin Ramon Mercader and a down-and-out Cuban writer who crosses Mercader's path. He also recently published "Herejes" or "Heretics" in Spanish, another historical work that explores the theme of individual liberty.

Padura, soft-spoken with a greying beard, says his friends had to convince him to do the U.S. book tour because he was worried his appearances would turn into political interrogations. But at his first event in Miami on Tuesday, all the questions were about his work, he said.

Staying here or anywhere other than Cuba for too long is not an option. He says he needs to be close to that same 200 metre radius in Mantilla where his father, grandparents and even great-grandparents were all raised.

"I need to be close to that reality to be able to take the pulse of what Cubans are living," he says.

___

Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario

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