Heretics: A Novel

Leonar­do Padu­ra; Anna Kush­n­er, trans.
  • Review
By – June 6, 2017

The first forty pages of Heretics, Cuban nov­el­ist Leonar­do Padura’s epic brick of a book, are among the most heart­break­ing I’ve read in recent memory.

They chart, in quick suc­ces­sion, the swelling opti­mism inside young Daniel Kamin­sky, a Pol­ish boy in Havana, soon to be reunit­ed with his father, moth­er, and sis­ter; the well-to-do Kamin­skys’ increas­ing­ly quixot­ic and des­per­ate flight from the anti-Semi­tism and Nazism that is rapid­ly spread­ing and smoth­er­ing Europe; the mis­placed hope the fam­i­ly has pinned to an extreme­ly valu­able paint­ing they’ve smug­gled out of Europe and brought with them; and the trag­ic, cru­el fate of the ship they’ve been unfor­tu­nate enough to find pas­sage on. That ship is the real-life St. Louis, on which near­ly a thou­sand Jew­ish pas­sen­gers wait in the Havana har­bor for days before the deci­sion — under­cut by cor­rup­tion and pol­i­tics — is made to turn them away, first to the U.S., where they are turned away for a sec­ond time, and final­ly back to Europe. Hear­ing the news and under­stand­ing what it means, the boy makes the dras­tic deci­sion that he, of his own will and from the bot­tom of his heart, would from then on dis­own his con­di­tion as a Jew.” Like this, Daniel Kamin­sky becomes the first of the novel’s many fas­ci­nat­ing heretics and con­flict­ed heroes.

The near­ly five hun­dred pages that fol­low, in which ques­tions of free will and the con­di­tion of being Jew­ish (of being any­thing, real­ly), nev­er stray far from the sur­face, are by turns arrest­ing, mean­der­ing, dry­ly fun­ny, and often deeply moving.

In present-day Havana, Mario Conde, a retired cop and some­time pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor, is brought into the fold by Elias Kamin­sky, Daniel’s Amer­i­can-born son, to solve the mys­tery of the paint­ing, a small Rem­brandt — an enig­mat­ic por­trait of Jesus Christ that may in fact be a por­trait of a Sephardic Jew — which went miss­ing on the ship sev­en­ty years ear­li­er and has now turned up for auc­tion in Lon­don val­ued at just over a mil­lion dollars. 

Conde, a recur­ring char­ac­ter in sev­er­al of Padura’s pop­u­lar detec­tive nov­els, is pitch per­fect as the per­pet­u­al­ly broke (and bro­ken), rum-soaked, philo­soph­i­cal­ly inclined pri­vate eye. This is a man who has seen every­thing, read every­thing, and still under­stands noth­ing. He is our guide through the moral and for­mal com­plex­i­ties of this long, com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry and we’re lucky to have him. He is the novel’s most­ly-unflap­pable cen­ter and its most dynam­i­cal­ly drawn character. 

At its core, Heretics is a sim­ple detec­tive nov­el — an almost clichéd mys­tery about a miss­ing paint­ing — but, per­haps in a nod to the here­sies it is so obsessed with, it flat-out refus­es to oper­ate like one. Instead, Padu­ra man­ages to spin from the small, miss­ing Rem­brandt an impres­sive, search­ing book that expands until it encom­pass­es not only sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of the Kamin­sky fam­i­ly, but a his­to­ry of Jew­ish per­se­cu­tion, bits and pieces of mys­ti­cism and fanati­cism, a gen­tly drawn por­trait of Rem­brandt in the cul­tur­al bee­hive of sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ams­ter­dam, an inves­ti­ga­tion into the pow­er of art, a poignant­ly nos­tal­gic pic­ture of 1950s Havana and its once-bustling Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion, and one of a new Cuba full of goths, rock­ers, freaks, and emos who don’t believe in anything.” 

Though nev­er quite bor­ing, the nov­el los­es some of its steam when it aban­dons Conde and the Kamin­skys about halfway through (they come back even­tu­al­ly) for the sto­ry of a Jew­ish painter liv­ing three cen­turies ear­li­er in Ams­ter­dam. And again in the third act when Conde becomes involved in a very ten­u­ous­ly relat­ed mur­der mys­tery. But Padu­ra seems intent on stuff­ing his book with as much as he can and for the most part it works — main­ly due to the writ­ing itself (trans­lat­ed by Anna Kush­n­er), which can tend toward clut­tered and knot­ty, but is rarely dull, even when the sto­ry slumps. 

All of Padura’s char­ac­ters in this sweep­ing, unapolo­getic, and ulti­mate­ly sat­is­fy­ing nov­el — painters, mes­si­ahs, punks, and detec­tives — are heretics in their own ways, souls push­ing against the lim­its of the lives, tra­di­tions, reli­gions, and rev­o­lu­tions that have been pre­scribed for them in the search for some­thing sacred. For the read­er, the plea­sure is in push­ing right along with them. 

Jonathan Arlan is a writer and edi­tor cur­rent­ly based in Kansas City. He is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished trav­el mem­oir Moun­tain Lines: A Jour­ney through the French Alps.

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