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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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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“Of course we won’t, Dionisio,” she assured him.

“I’m glad that we understand each other,” nodded the Count, moved by the naivety of the heroic Dionisio, who thought in pesos, whilst he calculated similar figures, but in dollars. “Let’s do it this way. I’ll choose twenty to thirty books that will sell well, although they’re not particularly valuable. I’ll separate them out now and come for them tomorrow with the money. After that I’d like to check the whole library, so I can tell you what I’d be interested in taking, what books would interest no buyer, and which books can’t, or rather shouldn’t, be sold, right? But first I’d like to hear the whole story, if you don’t mind, that is . . . I’m sorry to insist, but a library that has books like those I’ve just fished out and that’s been untouched for forty-three years . . .”

Dionisio Ferrero looked at his sister, and the colourless woman stared back at him, nibbling the skin on her fingers. Then she swung her head round towards the Count: “Which one? The story behind the library or the one explaining why we’re selling now?”

“Isn’t it the same one, with a beginning and an end?”

“When the Montes de Ocas left Cuba, Mummy and I stayed on in this house, one of the most elegant in El Vedado . . . as you can still see, after all this time. Mr Alcides Montes de Oca, who had initially supported the Revolution, realized that things were going to change more than he’d bargained for and in September 1969, when they started taking over US companies, he headed north with just his two children, as his wife had died four or five years earlier, in 1956, and he hadn’t remarried. Although business hadn’t gone well under Batista, Mr Alcides still had lots and lots of money; his own, and what he’d inherited from his deceased wife, Alba Margarita, who was a Méndez-Figueredo, the family that owned two sugar mills in Las Villas among countless other things . . . And it was then he suggested to Mummy and me that we could go with him, if we wished. Just imagine, Mummy was his right arm in all his business affairs and on top of that had been like a sister to him as well. She’d even been born in this household; that is, in the house the Montes de Ocas owned in El Cerro before they built this one, because Mummy was born in 1912 and this house was finished in 1922, after the war, which was when the Montes de Ocas were at their wealthiest. That was why they could afford to ship marble from Italy and Belgium, tiles from Coimbra, wood from Honduras, steel from Chicago, curtains from England, glass from Venice and interior designers from Paris . . . At the time my grandparents were gardener and laundry woman to the Montes de Oca family, and as Mummy had been born in the house she was brought up almost as a member of the family, as I said, like a sister to Mr Alcides, and that’s how Mummy was able to study and even get her finishing certificate. But when she was about to enter Teacher Training College she made up her mind to stop studying and asked Mrs Ana, the wife of Don Tomás and Mr Alcides’ mother, if they’d let her work in the house as housekeeper or administrator, because she fancied being here, surrounded by beautiful, pristine, expensive things rather than life as a school teacher in a state school struggling with snotty-nosed children for a hundred pesos a month. That was when Mummy was nineteen or twenty, and by that time the Montes de Ocas weren’t as rich, because they lost a lot of money in the 1929 Depression and because Don Serafín, who’d fought in the War of Independence, and his son Don Tomás, a renowned lawyer, refused to play along with Machado, who was a dictator by then. Machado and his people made their lives impossible, and ruined lots of their business operations, just as Batista did with Mr Alcides, although before Batista’s coup d’état Mr Alcides had made a fortune in deals he made during the Great War, so it didn’t matter so much if he didn’t get a share in that degenerate’s big handouts . . . Ah, but I’m losing my thread as usual . . . Well, the truth is that Mummy helped Mr Alcides an awful lot. She dealt with all his papers, accounts, income tax declarations, was his private secretary, and when his wife, Mrs Alba Margarita, died, Mummy also took responsibility for their children. Consequently, when Mr Alcides decided to leave, he suggested to Mummy that we should go with him, but she wanted time to think it over. She wasn’t immediately sure if we should go or stay, because Dionisio, who’d joined the clandestine movement to overthrow Batista when very young, and was a hundred per cent behind the Revolution, had gone to educate the illiterate in the hills of Oriente, and Mummy didn’t want to abandon him. How old were you, Dionisio? Twenty-four? But by the same token Mummy didn’t want to be separated from Jorgito and Anita, Mr Alcides’ children; she’d practically brought them up and she knew that Mr Alcides would really need her when he started up other businesses in the US. It was a tremendous dilemma. Mr Alcides told her to take her time and that when she’d made her mind up, the doors to his house, whatever it was like and wherever it was, would always be open to us, and we could join him whenever we wanted. If we stayed in Cuba, we could live here and he only asked one favour: to look after the house, particularly the library and the two Sèvres porcelain vases his grandmother, Doña Marina Azcárate, had bought in Paris, as he couldn’t take them, although he was always one who thought the Revolution would be short-lived and when it collapsed he’d be able to return to his possessions and business here. And if it didn’t and we didn’t leave, he asked the same favours of us, until he, his son Jorgito or daughter Anita could fetch the books and vases and they would be reunited with the family. Naturally, Mummy promised that if he stayed in Miami, Mr Alcides could be sure that when he returned everything would be in place, that was her pledge, and it was a sacred commitment as far as she was concerned . . .

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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