Havana Gold

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Havana Gold, first published in Spanish as Vientos de Cuaresma (the winds of Lent), opens on a windy Ash Wednesday in the spring of 1989. Lieutenant Mario Conde is not an ordinary police officer, and neither is his beat. He lives and works in a poor area of the crowded city of Havana in an era when Cuba is undergoing drastic changes due to the withdrawal of Russian support. What makes Conde different from others in his police unit is his introspection and his sensitivity to events and people. He is a reader, and he has learned not to lend his novels because they are seldom returned. He is also a would-be fiction writer, though this is more a dream than a reality. He is a heavy drinker when he can get something alcoholic, but he does not drink alone. Coffee is even more difficult to get, but about that and about much of his situation, he has learned to accept the conditions over which he has no control. What he cannot accept is that a murderer in his own district could avoid being brought to justice.

The case he must deal with becomes more personal to Conde because the victim was a young teacher at Pre-University High School, Conde’s alma mater, and his investigation stirs nostalgia and a keen awareness of the differences there since he had been a student. The teacher, Lisette Delgado, was apparently well liked by and friendly with her students. Yet she was found dead in her apartment, a victim of both rape and murder, not necessarily by the same person; evidence suggests that at least two men raped her. Marijuana is found in the apartment, and drugs become a major issue: where they come from, who benefits, the effect of usage on the individual, the social repercussions, the connections with the police.

The police are not portrayed in a favorable light. Rather than finding support and fellowship with the other police as is often true in police procedural novels, the police around Conde are generally more hindrance than help. Major Antonio Rangel, Conde’s immediate superior, is typical of the others in the department. He is jealous because he knows Conde is better at solving cases than he could ever be. He keeps a tight rein on Conde and pressures him to solve the murder quickly, but without exposing any police corruption. Conde must essentially solve the case alone and might even solve it faster without the nuisance of the others.

Conde investigates and learns more about the murder victim, and it appears that Delgado was not the model teacher she was presumed to be. She fraternized with her students outside the classroom, and the marijuana trail begun in her apartment leads to the revelation that she participated in drugs and in sex with a variety of men, including perhaps ex-students and students, a Mexican boyfriend, and the headmaster at her school. Evidence indicates that she had sex with two men shortly before she was strangled, at least one of whom raped her. The suspects keep increasing rather than being easily eliminated.

Conde’s visit to Pre-Uni school is full of emotion and nostalgia. The school building, like so many of the buildings in the barrio and the rest of Havana, shows years of neglect. What Conde sees in the behavior of the students, including their seeming lack of respect for teachers and learning, brings him wistful memories of his seemingly more innocent schooldays and the fun and companionship he shared with his close friends during those years.

This nostalgia for the past that no longer exists either for him or for the city is a theme that runs throughout the novel. It is stronger than ordinary for an adult looking back to his youth, because the present is so noticeably more impoverished and circumscribed than the past he can remember. It is hard for Conde to accept the finality of the economic woes and political restrictions that he has witnessed. He has learned to adjust, but he cannot pretend that he does not know that things could be better; he has known them to be better.

The depressing changes in Cuba that Conde has witnessed add to his tendency to philosophize about life and his...

(The entire section is 1675 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2008): 50.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 19 (May 12, 2008): 39-40.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 20, 2008, p. 21.