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Rum-Soaked, Bloody, Sprawling 'Heretics' Is A Romp Through Centuries

I love reading books in translation. There's just something about that second pass — that second look at the language — which removes, by my rough estimate, something like 10% of any writer's preciousness (I've never known one who couldn't spare that much, at least) and gives every line such a chewy, lived-in feel. The motion of the words themselves, from one tongue to another — from one brain to another, one mouth to another — alters them fundamentally. The untranslatable idiom, the occasional clumsy bit of dialog (no doubt perfect in its native tongue) made so much better and more, I don't know, human in its awkwardness. I cherish it all.

And so we have Anna Kushner translating Leonardo Padura's newest novel Heretics and committing to the page these beautifully complicated thoughts, these gorgeously convoluted lines. Like this, an explanation of someone saying, essentially, I dream of being invisible:

I know, right? One sentence out of ten thousand. More. I don't even know. But all of them are just as lovely. Just as weirdly sticky. Just as packed with meaning and sculpted with such care. What I'm saying is, translators don't get enough love.

And Kushner, working here with one of the most beloved writers in modern Cuba, is dealing both with a man who has a serious way with words and a massive, sprawling door-stopper of a novel that takes one of the most exhausted tropes in upper-crust detective fiction (the missing painting McGuffin), crosses it with a historical fiction (stretching all the way back to the 17th century in places), mixes in the tale of a mysterious missing emo girl and, in the process, creates something that feels like a grungy, beautiful gutter epic. Something rum-soaked and bloody. Dangerous and funny. Chandler in the tropics, if Chandler had a sense of humor and a PhD in art history and Diaspora studies.

Dangerous and funny. Chandler in the tropics, if Chandler had a sense of humor and a PhD in art history and Diaspora studies.

Heretics is a story about one of Padura's favorite recurring characters, Mario Conde. And Conde is fantastic — a former Cuban police detective turned jack-leg private investigator with a powerful taste for rum and a dog named Garbage II. He is always broke, perpetually hungry, and as the novel begins he's making his rounds as a down-on-his-luck dealer in second-hand books (but really a semi-pro moocher). And then he crosses paths with one Elias Kaminsky who appears on his porch one night with a story about Cuban Jews, the Holocaust, the tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis (which sailed from Europe in 1939 with over 900 fleeing Jews aboard and was turned back upon reaching Havana's harbor) and a mysterious Rembrandt painting of Jesus Christ which may (or may not) have been his father's.

"It's not that easy," Elias says, "to say you think your father, whom you always saw that way, as a father ... could have been the same person who slit someone's neck."

And boom. Conde is hooked, just like that. Incredulous, sure. Only half-believing anything that comes out of this man Elias's mouth. But also, like I said, broke. And hungry. And out of cigarettes. And nearly speechless with excitement when he hears that this man is going to pay him $100 a day to investigate what might've happened to his father and that painting in the years between 1939 (when it came to Cuba, carried by other Kaminskys, aboard the St. Louis) and now, when it has just re-appeared at a London auction house, valued at somewhere north of a million dollars.

What comes next is a romp and a wallow through centuries and nations — from Poland in the 1600's to Rembrandt's studio in the 1700's, Jewish Kabbalists in Thessaloniki, punk kids on the streets of Havana in 2007, German pogroms, a bizarre Blade Runner homage at a beach party that ends with Conde striding naked into the sea quoting Roy Batty's "Tears in the rain" speech.

And in all of this, the uniting strand is the idea of heresy — of rules broken that can never be unbroken, of modernity grinding away at tradition. The Jewish art student who posed for Rembrandt's Christ painting, the Kaminsky family displaying it in a fit of atheistic pride, the kids in Cuba, the "most remarkable tip of the iceberg of a generation of certified heretics." This is what Padura spends 500 pages talking about: Heresy as a forgetting of the past.

But, really, what holds everything together is Conde. His goofy cool, his self-destruction and generosity, his obsessions and his premonitions. Heretics can drag when Conde is not on the page, but it winks by like sun on chrome when he is. And besides all of Padura's beautiful words, all those gorgeous sentences loaded down with strangeness and terrible history, it's the waiting for Conde to come slouching and cursing back onto the page — embodying the link between past and present, goodness and evil — that is the primary joy in Heretics' darkest places.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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