Refugees Are Turned Back And A Rembrandt Goes Missing In Suspenseful 'Heretics' Leonardo Padura's new novel opens in 1939, when a ship carrying Jewish refugees is turned away from Cuba. Critic Maureen Corrigan says Heretics "spans and defies literary categories."


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Refugees Are Turned Back And A Rembrandt Goes Missing In Suspenseful 'Heretics'

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This is FRESH AIR. Leonardo Padura has been hailed as Cuba's greatest living writer. He's certainly one of the most versatile, writing across genres and time periods. His latest novel, called "Heretics," centers around the ill-fated voyage in 1939 of the passenger-ship-turned-refugee-ship, the S.S. St. Louis. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: You might say that "Heretics," a sprawling novel by celebrated Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, has been in the works since the early 1990s. It was back then that Padura began writing a series of books featuring an ex police detective in Havana named Mario Conde. Funny and philosophical, Conde, like the sharpest of detectives, devotes more time to investigating the mysteries of his own society than he does to investigating crime. Padura also writes straight literary fiction too, including his much praised 2009 historical novel about the assassination of Leon Trotsky called, "The Man Who Loved Dogs," Which brings us to "Heretics," where Padura has upped the ante.

For over 500 tightly packed pages here, Padura manages to sustain his signature tone of wry, elegant cool as he juggles the demands of a story that oscillates between Cuba in the 1930s and the present, with a long central stopover in the Amsterdam of the 17th century. This historical narrative is spliced together with a mystery tale featuring the radiant return of detective Conde. Like Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel "The Sympathizer," which won both last year's Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America, Padura's "Heretics" spans and defies literary categories, all of which would only be of ho-hum technical interest if "Heretics" weren't also an arresting novel about fanaticism, anti-Semitism and the long fall-out of a decades'-old moment of political cowardice.

"Heretics" opens on that notorious moment which took place in Cuba in 1939. A young boy named Daniel Kaminsky has been living with his uncle in Havana ever since his parents got him out of Poland. On the morning of May 27, Daniel's parents and his younger sister are due to arrive in Havana along with 934 other refugees from Europe. They're sailing on the S.S. St. Louis, a boat, as Padura says, that was loaded down with Jews and trust. Here's Padura's description of the scene at the dock, where the St. Louis sat in bureaucratic limbo.

(Reading) The port would soon become a sort of grotesque carnival. The thousands of Jews living in Havana had camped out on the docks. Businesses and stands had gone up selling food and drink, fans and flip flops. The most lucrative business was the rental of boats, aboard which people with relatives on the passenger ship could get as close to the vessel as police and Navy launches would allow to see their family members there and to convey some message of encouragement.

Daniel's parents remain optimistic because they carry something with them that they can barter for their freedom, a Rembrandt portrait of Christ. But on June 2, the St. Louis was ordered to leave Cuba, and Daniel watches, stunned, as his family, along with the other passengers, sail out of the harbor and toward what will be, for many, death. At that moment, Daniel renounces Judaism, decides he's Cuban and that's it, and thus becomes a heretic. The intricate plot revolves around that missing Rembrandt painting. Detective Conde is hired some seven decades later to find out what happened to it.

It's to Padura's credit that he writes with such gusto. Most readers will forget that his novel is built on the old missing-painting cliche. Indeed, it's that powerful word, heretic, that's the most crucial link among the many stories here. We hear murmurs of that word in the central tale, set in Rembrandt's studio in Amsterdam, where a Jewish apprentice blasphemously poses for that portrait of Christ. Much later, we also hear the word heretic coming out of Conde's mouth as he walks down a street in Cuba in 2008 and surveys teenagers dressed as goths, punks and emos. Conde, who's in his 60s, thinks resignedly of these young Cubans as the most remarkable tip of the iceberg of a generation of certified heretics, left with no slogans or politics to believe in.

Cloaked within familiar narrative conventions, Padura's ingenious novel is something of a heretic itself. By turns playful, dark and moving, it traces the great psychic costs and rewards that come from nestling so deeply into dogma that nothing is permitted to trigger doubt. This was the great theme of classic works of the fascist and communist 20th century, like, of course, Orwell's "1984." We were supposed to have awoken from those nightmares. But as Padura reminds us, perhaps we haven't.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Heretics" by Leonardo Padura.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She just got back last week from Iraq, where she was embedded with Iraqi troops fighting to liberate the western half of Mosul from ISIS. We'll talk about the fighting, what life is like for women living under ISIS and what it's like for Callimachi to be a woman covering the battle against ISIS. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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