Excerpt from Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Havana Fever

By Leonardo Padura

Havana Fever

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“I’ve never been able to find out what Mummy’s real intentions were, if she’d already decided to stay or was only marking time to see what happened to Dionisio here or to Mr Alcides when he established himself over there. I asked her two or three times and she always gave me the same answer: her mind was a fog, she wanted more time, and it was a very big decision . . . But a woman like her must have known, however thick the fog in her head. The crunch came seven months later, in March 1961, when Mr Alcides, driving while utterly drunk, had an accident and killed himself. The news reached us a week later. When Mummy – who was already quite depressed – put the phone down, she locked herself in her room for a week, didn’t come out or let anyone go in, and when she did finally open the door to me, I found a different woman: she wasn’t the Mummy we knew, and we saw how her grief and feelings of guilt at not leaving with Mr Alcides had unbalanced her mind.

“I think it was then that I understood exactly what the Montes de Ocas meant to her, apart from her working for Don Alcides and feeling so important at the side of that powerful man who no longer existed. After all those years she couldn’t imagine Don Alcides wasn’t on this island to give her orders and ask her advice . . . Poor Mummy had organized her whole life around that man and had lost out totally. She shut herself up in her room and turned into a fossil, because if she’d once thought of leaving with Mr Alcides, and of helping him with his children and business, that now made no sense, because Jorgito and Anita were living with their Aunt Eva, who’d also left Cuba, and Mr Alcides had taken his promise that we would be welcome in his house to the grave . . . While she closeted herself in her room, and brooded over her sorrow and confusion, Dionisio and I tried to start out in life. Just imagine, I was twenty-one and had begun working in a bank. I became a member of the Women’s Federation, then a militia woman. Dionisio joined the army when he returned from the literacy campaign, was soon promoted to sergeant, and we both began to live, well, differently, on our own account, for ourselves, not thinking about the Montes de Ocas or depending on them, as our family had for almost a century, as my mother had ever since she could remember . . . Although Dionisio may not agree, this was self-delusion, because the ghosts of the Montes de Ocas were still alive in this house: my mother’s sickening isolation finally turned into madness; the china, library, Sèvres vases, furniture, lots of decorations and two or three of the paintings Mr Alcides decided not to take, stayed in place here, waiting for a Mr Alcides, who’d now never return, and then for his children, who never came or took the slightest interest in what they’d abandoned. I entered into correspondence for several years with Miss Eva, who’d gone to live in New Jersey, if I remember rightly, to a town or city called Rutherford, and kept in contact, though it was only one or two letters a year. But Miss Eva moved house around 1968, a couple of my letters were returned to sender stamped ‘addressee unknown’, and we had no news of them for years. I began to fear the worst. I wrote to other people who lived over there, hoping they might perhaps know where the Montes de Ocas were, but we had no news of them for ten years, until a friend of the family visited Cuba and we finally found out that they’d gone to live in San Francisco and that Miss Eva had died of cancer three or four years earlier. But the children were still alive and, out of respect for Mummy’s pledge, I waited and waited in case they expressed an interest in the vases and books, and decided to keep them just so. The oldest books almost all belonged to Don Serafín, Mr Tomás’s father, who also bought a lot, because he was a very educated man, a solicitor and law professor at the. Like his father, he used to buy every book that appealed to him, never worrying about the price, and he’d only ever give his friends and grandchildren books as birthday presents. The Sèvres vases had belonged to the family since the nineteenth century, when the Azcárates and Montes de Ocas of old had been exiled in France, whilst they waited for the war against Spain to resume. Those books and vases, like the house itself, were the real history of the family, and as Mummy felt she was a Montes de Oca, because they’d always treated her as such, it all had a sentimental value for her and we had to respect her pledge . . . although the fact is nothing remained of the Montes de Ocas, nobody remembered them, and that library and those vases were their only connection with the past and this country . . . But the years went by and the books and vases lingered on. As I earned a good wage and Dionisio always gave me money for Mummy, we were comfortably off and I never thought of selling anything, because we never went short. But things took a real turn for the worse in 1990 and 1991. To cap it all Dionisio had a heart attack, was demobbed from the army and then separated from his wife. Although the year he was demobbed Dionisio started to work on the same wage for a company that supplied the army, what we both earned soon went nowhere, because there was no food and you had to be as wealthy as the Montes de Ocas to buy any food that did appear. To make matters worse, Dionisio left that company and started eating lunch and dinner at home. I’m not ashamed to say this, because you must certainly have experienced something similar: it got so bad that some nights my brother and I went to bed on a glass of sugared water, and an infusion of orange or mint leaves, because we gave the little real food we had to Mummy, and sometimes there wasn’t even enough for her . . . It was then I decided to do something with the decorations, paintings, vases and books – the only things of any value we had. I swear it was a matter of life or death. Even so I stalled for months until I decided that we were going to starve to death from lack of food if we carried on like that; you only had to see how skinny Dionisio was, who, after being a major and leading men in the war in Angola, was now forced to plant bananas and yuccas in our patio and get himself a job as a night watchman to earn a few extra pesos . . . One day we stopped debating and started to sell what was left of the dinner services, then the decorations and paintings, which were nothing special, although we practically had to give them away, because we couldn’t find anybody who’d pay us what they were supposedly worth. Then we sold a few pieces of furniture, some lamps, and got a decent amount for them, believe me, but it ran through our fingers like water and four years ago we finally decided to sell the Sèvres vases to an upstanding Frenchman living in Cuba who does business with the government. He paid us well for the vases, just imagine, they were this high and handpainted, and that saw us through up to now. Those vases saved our lives . . . But after so many years, and at present prices . . . Dionisio and I have been thinking for some time that we should sell the books. I mean, Dionisio started thinking that way, because I’d made my mind up long ago. Whenever I went to dust the library I’d always ask myself what did it matter if nobody read them and nobody was ever going to reclaim them . . . Besides, I’d always felt resentful towards those books, not the books themselves, but what they represent and represented: they are the living spirit of the Montes de Ocas, a reminder of what they and others of their type were like, the people who thought they owned the country, I find it upsetting just to go into the library, it’s a place I feel rejecting me, and one in turn rejects it . . . So, that’s the story. I know there are people who aren’t having such a bad time as they did five or ten years ago, that there are even people who live very well, but you just add it up: on two pensions and with no one to send us dollars, we’re still in the same plight, if not worse. In the end, life itself made it easier for us: we don’t have any alternative now and my brother understands . . . we either sell the books or gradually starve to death, poor Mummy included, who luckily is completely detached from reality, because I expect she’d forgive us for selling everything else, but if she ever realized what we intend to do with the Montes de Ocas’ library, I think she’d have it in her to kill us both and then starve to death . . .”

Excerpted from Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura Copyright © 2009 by Leonardo Padura. Excerpted by permission of Bitter Lemon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher

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