Adios, Hemingway by Leonardo Padura Fuentes
I have been trying to seek out more literature in translation lately because I have discovered that it is shocking how deficient my library is in that area. I loved Shadow of the Wind, and then I read The Hidden War by Artyom Borovik, which pretty much taught me everything I never knew about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and I’ve finally figured out that I really have no excuse. Just because books by foreign authors are not publicized much in the United States doesn’t mean that they still aren’t readily available (this is the 21st century after all). So I jumped at the chance to read and review Adios, Hemingway by Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes. What I found was one of the more uniquely written books I've read in a long time and certainly a fresh and revealing look into the Ernest Hemingway who lived in Cuba.
Fuentes has written several books about the adventures of Mario Conde, a Cuban police detective who leaves the force to become a writer. As he writes in Hemingway, Conde idolized the American writer when he was young but eventually distanced himself from the legend after reading about his falling out with John Dos Passos and altercations he had with other friends over the years such as Scott Fitzgerald and Sherman Anderson. Conde thinks that he knows Hemingway, and he has decided that he doesn’t like the man and feels even less about the legend. He can’t resist the lure of a murder mystery at Finca Vigia, however, and the discovery of a forty-year-old corpse buried in the author’s backyard prompts his unofficial return to police work. Now Conde has the leisure and permission to wander alone through the house, pull books off the shelves, even wear Hemingway’s slippers. He can entertain all the questions he has about who the author truly was, and perhaps find some answers to more personal questions about his own diminished writing ability.
Paralleling Conde’s investigation into the dead man’s identity and the events surrounding his murder is a second storyline taking place the night of the killing and focusing on Hemingway himself. This storyline has been carefully crafted around the conclusion of The Garden of Eden, the novel that Hemingway began in the '40s and suffered through for almost two decades before abandoning it in 1958. The sly suggestion by Fuentes is that the dead man affected the author’s ability to successfully complete the book and also caused him to fall even deeper into the depression that would plague him until his death. Mostly though, Fuentes seems to use this second storyline to indulge his own questions about the behavior of a man who has dominated the twentieth century literary world. He also considers just what might have led the author to take his own life and draws compelling conclusions about the burden of being the mythological Papa Hemingway.
As Papa prowls the grounds of Finca Vigia in 1958, armed and lonely, Mario Conde interviews the men who knew him during that time and then turns to the papers he left behind for the final clues. Ultimately the reader learns what really happened because we are with Hemingway when the shots are fired, but Conde never knows for sure why the dead man was there or who instigated the deadly confrontation. But the mystery’s solution becomes less important to him by the book’s end, in light of his own, more personal revelations. He is content to have enough of the truth, rather than all of it, and more than anything it is his satisfaction at finally understanding Hemingway that proves to be the book’s real resolution.
I have been a fan of Hemingway for a long long time, but I am a conflicted fan in many ways, similar to Mario Conde. I enjoyed this book because it provided a long overdue Cuban perspective on the author and more importantly, to me anyway, focused on the many contradictions about Hemingway the man. Can I really admire his stories about Africa while simultaneously being repulsed by his eagerness to hunt and kill? Can I enjoy his passionate stories of romance while shaking my head over the disastrous relationships that were left in his wake? Does being a “man’s man” mean being a poor friend and rude guest? At what point does an author’s personal behavior affect his readers’ response? Do we, in other words, admire Hemingway because of the words he wrote or the larger than life things he did to prompt those writings?
Adios, Hemingway is a smart Cold War mystery that taps into the mind of an American icon. Fuentes pulls no punches when he writes about the author and through the investigation of Mario Conde takes his readers into the darker moments of the life of a legend. Ultimately this is a book that only a Cuban author could have written because it is about a time and place, and certainly a man, who belonged very much to that country. It’s a little beauty of a novel and was a distinct pleasure to read. While fans of Hemingway cannot let it pass by, anyone looking for a unique mystery will be pleased with what they find here.
Adios, Hemingway by Leonardo Padura Fuentes, Translated by John King