A side: Be gone from me
. . .In your life I'll be the best
from the mists of yesterday
when you've forgotten me,
like the best poems always
the one we can't remember.
Virgilio y Homero Expósito, Be gone from me
The symptoms hit him suddenly, like a voracious wave sweeping
a child off a quiet shore and dragging him into the depths of the
sea: a lethal double blow to the stomach, numbness that turned his
legs to jelly, a cold sweat on his palms and, above all, the searing
pain, under his left nipple, which accompanied every single hunch
hed ever had.
As soon as the doors to the library slid open, the smell of old paper and hallowed places floating in that mind-blowing room overwhelmed him. In his far-off years as a police detective, Mario Conde had learnt to recognize the physical signs of his situation-saving hunches: he must have been wondering if hed ever experienced such a powerful flood of sensations.
Initially he was all set to be ruthlessly logical, and tried to persuade himself that it was pure chance hed come across that shadowy, decaying mansion in El Vedado: an unusual stroke of good fortune for once had deigned to come his way. But a few days later, when corpses old and new stirred in their graves, the Count began to think that no margin for coincidence existed, that it had all been dramatically prepared, like a stage set up for a performance that only his disruptive entrance could trigger.
Ever since hed left his job as a criminal investigator, more than thirteen years ago, and devoted himself body and soul at least as much as his battered body and increasingly enfeebled soul allowed to the dicey business of buying and selling books, the Count had developed an almost canine ability to track down prey that would guarantee, sometimes in surprisingly generous quantities, his supply of food and alcohol. Whether for good or for evil he couldnt decide which his departure from the police and forced entry into the world of commerce had coincided with the official declaration that Crisis had hit the island a galloping Crisis that would soon dwarf all previous versions. The perennial, interminable periods of austerity the Count and his contemporaries had faced for decades now started to seem, in the course of inevitable comparisons and tricks of memory, like days of plenty or nameless mini-crises, with no right to awe-inspiring personification by capital letter. As if the result of a malevolent wave of a wand, the shortage of everything imaginable quickly became a permanent state, attacking the most disparate of human needs. The value and nature of every object or service was artfully transmuted by insecurity into something different from what it used to be: be it a match or an aspirin, a pair of shoes or an avocado, sex, hopes or dreams. Meanwhile church confessionals and consultancies of voodoo priests, spiritualists, fortune-tellers, mediums and babalaos were crowded with new adepts, panting after a breath of spiritual consolation.
The shortages were so acute they even hit the venerable world of books. Within a year publishing went into freefall, and cobwebs covered the shelves in gloomy bookshops where sales assistants had stolen the last light bulbs with any life, that were next-to useless anyway, in those days of endless blackouts. Hundreds of private libraries ceased to be a source of enlightenment and bibliophilic pride, or a cornucopia of memories of possibly happy times, and swapped the scent of wisdom for the vulgar, acrid stench of a few life-saving banknotes. Priceless libraries created over generations and libraries knocked together by upstarts; libraries specializing in the most profound, unusual themes and libraries made from birthday presents and wedding anniversaries were all cruelly sacrificed by their owners on the pagan altar of financial necessity suddenly felt by the inhabitants of a country where the shadow of death by starvation threatened almost every home.
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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