Books: Running from the past

Leonardo Padura pens a tale of Cuban Jewry, hidden lives and struggles with identity in a sweeping new novel.

The streets of Cuba (photo credit: REUTERS)
The streets of Cuba
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Cuban author Leonardo Padura writes with uncanny insight, empathy and brilliance about the struggle many Jews wrestle with trying to find their place in the world as Jews.
Padura is not a Jew, yet seems to understand us and the internal battles we fight; torn between ancient callings and modern temptations. Perhaps this is because he, too, is torn. He has spent his 61 years living in Havana, where he writes daring novels and yet manages somehow to avoid the wrath of the Castro regime. He does this by negotiating and compromising with the powers that be; understanding when to be silent and when he can speak, and avoiding direct confrontations always. His works are richly layered and emotionally charged narratives that speak to his disappointment with the socialist dream he once embraced that has been pulverized into dust.
Padura admits that fear is still his constant companion, and worries that perhaps at times he is going too far, but he feels propelled by a sacred mission of sorts to chronicle the broken lives of the Cuban people, who have been left with nothing. Perhaps that is why the Jewish reader feels such an intense connection to Padura – many of us have been engaging in a similar dance.
In Heretics, translated by Anna Kushner, Mario Conde is an ex-cop, who is now a private detective with literary frustrations, who agrees to help a young Jewish man from New York named Elias Kaminsky. Kaminsky’s father, Daniel Kaminsky, is now deceased, and his son wants to know more about him. Elias fears his father may have committed a horrific act in a moment of murderous revenge, and he wants Conde to help him find the truth. Elias is also in pursuit of a Rembrandt painting that was once in his family’s possession, and believes Conde may be able to lead him to those who stole it from his grandfather Isiah Kaminsky decades ago.
Daniel Kaminsky arrived in Cuba in 1939 to live with his Uncle Joseph, who had already renamed himself Pepe the Purseman. His parents were expected shortly. When they arrived on the s.s. St. Louis, the Cuban authorities would not let the Jews off the ship and they were sent back to a horrific death in Europe. Daniel, 10 at the time, watched his parents and sister leave with horror and swore off Judaism at that precise moment. The precious Rembrandt they had brought with them was stolen by someone who boarded the ship and left with it.
To survive, Daniel immersed himself in Cuban life; learning to love baseball and soccer and the nonstop blaring street music whose rhythms appealed to him. Later on he would marry a Cuban girl, Elias Kaminsky’s mother, and convert to Catholicism to please her and her worried parents.
Conde was moved by Elias’s tragic story and agreed to help him find some answers. He felt saddened by the trauma the young man had endured and thought about the man’s grandfather Isiah, who had tried desperately to save his family. Elias Kaminsky explains to Conde how his father, Daniel, managed to survive with his Uncle Joseph. He explains how his father brazenly questioned all he had learned before and asked himself, “What did he, Daniel Kaminsky, have to do with everything that was said about those born as Jews? Because their foreskin was cut, they ate certain foods, and not others, prayed to God in ancestral language, did they, he, his sister Judith, deserve that fate? How was it possible that some Jewish thinker came to say that suffering constituted another test imposed on God’s people because of their conditions and earthly mission as the flock chosen by the Holiest?”
Daniel’s anger saved him from complete despair and forced him to transform himself into a Cuban kid who wanted nothing to do with his past. Or with God, whom he no longer believed in. But much later on, when he and his wife wound up in Miami, and he suffered a scare from prostate cancer, he returned to the Judaism of his childhood, with his wife’s blessings. Elias told Conde he considered himself a Jew, but wasn’t observant, and had trouble explaining to Conde precisely what being Jewish meant to him.
PADURA’S NARRATIVE reaches an almost unbearable intensity when he leaves the present and drops into the past and into the life of another Elias – who he hints is perhaps a distant relative of the one who is now seeking Conde’s help. This Elias is also extremely distraught, but for different reasons. He lives in Amsterdam in 1643 and wants to study under Rembrandt and become a painter. He thinks about it constantly and secretly draws charcoal sketches which he hides under his bed in fear that he will be found out. The rabbis would excommunicate him if they knew he even thought about such an undertaking, which was forbidden by the precepts of his faith.
But Elias goes to Rembrandt and begs him to allow him to become one of his students, and Rembrandt consents, impressed by the young man’s zealousness and daring. When Rembrandt gives him his first lesson and allows Elias to attempt to paint him, the young man tentatively picks up the brush, dips it into his oil palette and feels flush with an ecstasy he has never felt before. Padura describes the magic: “The mystery, he knew at that moment, was called power: the power of Creation, the impulse of transcendence, the force of beauty no legal authority could conquer.”
Padura is masterful at describing the charged atmosphere for Jews in 17th-century Amsterdam. It was a wild and exhilarating time. Jews were speaking with each other for the first time about the “concept of free will” and many Jews were discussing how much time they wanted to devote to religious study. The rabbis sensed an impending rebellion and were trying to quash it. But soon enough, the Jews were being targeted again and forced to flee.
After Elias’s brother reveals he has been studying with Rembrandt, he is ousted from the community. Elias feels abandoned and frightened; the painting he loved seems insufficient without the protections of those he loves. He is having second thoughts about the entire endeavor. He tells Rembrandt he is planning on leaving after thanking him for his tutelage. When he does leave, for Palestine, he takes with him a few belongings. Among them are the portrait Rembrandt had once done of Elias, sketched on a linen cloth. It is precious to him, and would remain in his family for centuries.
Padura hints that Isiah Kaminsky, many generations later, was in possession of this painting, and hoped he would be able to use it to bribe some official to let him off the boat in Cuba. But all they took was the painting, sending him and his wife and daughter to their deaths.
When Padura leaves the past and returns to 2009, we feel sad and disoriented; convinced we have somehow been prematurely ejected from an enchanted world that possibly possessed the answers to our current malaise. We want to go back to the past and learn more, but Padura has sealed the portal. The secular Jews of our own time seem very much like the Jews back in Amsterdam in 1643. They are divided, torn, inquisitive and frightened; unable to agree on many things. The ancient Jews who were drawn to the seductions of the new world seem similar to the Jews of today; both want freedoms that are forbidden, yet find shedding ancient traditions and obligations a difficult and emotionally fraught endeavor that leaves many scars. They are reluctant to relinquish the wisdom of the ancient texts, and want to hold on to some sort of meaningful relationship with God. Padura shows us the individual agonies that accompany such struggles.
The same could be said for Padura. He sits in his childhood home in Cuba and looks out to the streets where he sees his own countrymen lost and frustrated and without any recourse. The socialist promise has died, and nothing has replaced it. People seem hopeless and the younger generation in Cuba takes pride only in professing their belief in nothingness, which Padura finds frightening. Yet Padura keeps writing, and remains cautious. His writing shows us that he is moved by the suffering that surrounds him, and irritated by the false promises that have led to such corruption and decay. He remains uncertain about the future, and always afraid; just like the Jews he writes so tenderly about in this extraordinary novel. ■
Heretics: A Novel
By Leonardo Padura
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
544 pages; $28