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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    May 2009, 285 pages

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Kim Kovacs

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That desperate act of offering a few, genuinely or would-be valuable volumes, or putting on sale boxes, yards, shelves, even entire collections assembled over one or more lifetimes, raised conflicting hopes in the dreams of buyers and sellers. The former always claimed they were offering bibliographical jewels and were eager to hear figures that might assuage the guilt the majority suffered when they off-loaded their closest travelling companions on the voyage through life. The latter revived a mercantile spirit they’d thought banned from their island, and tried to make a purchase they could later transform into a killing by arguing that the volumes in question had scant value or commercial potential. In his early days in this new profession, Mario Conde had tried to turn a deaf ear to the stories behind the libraries that fell into his hands. His years as a detective had forced him to live surrounded by sordid files, but this hadn’t made him immune to the sorrows of the soul and, when he got his way and left the police force, he discovered painfully that the dark side of life still pursued him. Every library for sale was a romantic novel with an unhappy ending, the drama of which didn’t depend on the quantity or quality of books being sacrificed, but on the paths along which the volumes had reached that particular house and the terrible logic now sending them to be slaughtered in the marketplace. Nevertheless, the Count quickly learnt that listening was an essential part of the business, because the majority of owners felt the need to discuss the reasons behind their decisions, sometimes dolling them up, sometimes stripping them bare, as if that act of confession at least salvaged a shred of their dignity.

Once the scars had healed, Conde began to see the romantic side of his role as a listener – he liked to describe himself as such – and started to weigh up the literary potential in those stories, often taking them on board as material for his ever deferred aesthetic endeavours. As he sharpened his insights, so he felt able to distinguish when a narrator was genuine or a pathetic liar, spinning a yarn in order to be better reconciled with his conscience, or merely to showcase his merchandise.

The more he penetrated the mysteries of his trade, the more Mario Conde realized he preferred the exercise of buying to the subsequent selling of the tomes he acquired. The act of selling books in a doorway, on a park bench, on the bend of a promising pavement, fanned smouldering remains of ravaged pride but above all provoked frustration at having to get rid of an item he’d often have preferred to retain. Consequently, although his earnings plunged, he adopted the strategy of working only as a trawler, replenishing the stocks of other street-sellers. From then on, when prospecting for mines of books, like all his colleagues in the city, the Count employed three complimentary, occasionally conflicting techniques: firstly, the most traditional: visiting someone who’d asked him to pay a call, as a result of his well-established reputation as a fair buyer; then, the embarrassing, almost medieval procedure of hawking – “I buy old books”, “I’m the man to take those old books off your hands”; or the most in-your-face, knocking optimistically on doors and asking whoever opened up if they were interested in selling a few well-worn books. The second of those commercial approaches was the most productive in outlying, perpetually impoverished districts that were generally quite unfruitful – though there was the occasional surprise – and where the art of buying and selling the impossible had for years been the survival system for hundreds of thousands of people. On the other hand, the “truffle” method of sniffing out houses was necessary in once aristocratic districts like El Vedado, Miramar and Kohly, and in parts of Santos Suárez, El Casino Deportivo and El Cerro, where people, in the teeth of the poverty spreading across the nation, struggled to preserve increasingly obsolete ways of life.

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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