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Read the First Chapter of Cuban Novelist Leonardo Padura's 'Heretics'

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 1 August 2017
The writer uses the unlikely fates of a Rembrandt painting and a family of Jewish refugees to narrative a grand portrait of Havana for our Global Anthology.

Anyone who has ever visited Havana will tell you that its delight is matched only by its enigma. The ornate and crumbling architecture and the abundance of antique cars might be signs of a time stopped by Fidel Castro’s communist rule of Cuba that all but turned out the lights of its capital city. As evidenced in Heretics, the fantastic novel by the contemporary Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, the city didn’t so much stop as veer from a conventional path forward. Now in a stunning translation by the preeminent translator of Cuban literature Anna Kushner, Heretics depicts Havana’s unorthodox progression into the present with an equally unorthodox telling of it. Premised on the fate of an heirloom possessed by a Jewish family that attempts to flee Nazi Europe for Havana, Padura paints a portrait of Havana in exotic and lush detail that digs the complex make-up of the city. As Cuba slowly acclimates to the world and, Havana welcomies greater numbers of visitors each year, Heretics may serve as its best novelized introduction. With gratitude toward its publisher, we offer its first chapter.

* * *

Havana, 1939

It would take Daniel Kaminsky many years to grow accustomed to the exuberant sounds of a city built on the most unwieldy commotion. He had quickly discovered that everything there began and ended with yelling, everything sputtered with rust and humidity, cars moved forward amid the wheezing and banging of engines or the long beeping of horns, dogs barked with and without reason and roosters even crowed at midnight, while each vendor made himself known with a toot, a bell, a trumpet, a whistle, a rattle, a flageolet, a melody in perfect pitch, or, simply, a shriek. He had run aground in a city in which, on top of it all, each night, at nine on the dot, cannon fire roared without any declaration of war or city gates to close, and where, in good times and bad, you always, always heard music, and not just that, singing.

At the beginning of his Havana life, the boy would often try to evoke, as much as his scarcely-filled-with-memories mind would allow, the thick silences of the Jewish bourgeois neighborhood in Kraków where he had been born and lived his early days. He pursued that cold, rose-colored land of the past intuitively from the depths of his rootlessness; but when his memories, real or imagined, touched down on the firm ground of reality, he immediately reacted and tried to escape it. In the dark, silent Kraków of his infancy, too much noise could mean only two things: it was either market day or there was some imminent danger. In the final years of his Polish existence, danger grew to be more common than merchants. So fear became a constant companion.

As expected, when Daniel Kaminsky landed in the raucous city, for a long time he would process the pounding of that explosive, resounding environment, one alarm bell after another, until, with the passing of years, he managed to understand that, in this new world, silence tended to herald only the most dangerous things. Once he overcame that phase, when he finally came to live amid the noise without hearing the noise, the way one breathes without consciousness of each breath, young Daniel discovered that he had lost his ability to appreciate the beneficent qualities of silence. But he would boast, above all, of having managed to make peace with Havana’s racket, since, at the same time, he’d attained the stubborn goal of feeling like he belonged to that turbulent city where, lucky for him, he had been spit out by the wave of a curse of history or of the divine—and until the end of his days he would wonder which of these was more accurate.

The day on which Daniel Kaminsky began to experience the worst nightmare of his life, and simultaneously to get the first hint of his privileged fate, an overwhelming ocean smell and an ungodly, almost physical silence hung over Havana in the wee hours of the morning. His uncle Joseph had woken him earlier than he usually did to send him to Hebrew school at the Israelite Center, where the boy was receiving academic and religious instruction in addition to the essential Spanish language lessons that would allow for his integration into the motley and diverse world where he would live only God knew for how long. But the day revealed itself as different when, after having imparted the Sabbath blessing and expressed his best wishes for Shavuot, his uncle broke with his usual restraint and kissed the boy on the forehead.

Uncle Joseph, also a Kaminsky and, of course, also Polish, had by then taken to being called Pepe the Purseman—thanks to the masterful way he carried out his work as a maker of bags, billfolds, and purses, among other leather goods—and was always, and would be until his death, a strict follower of the precepts of the Jewish religion. As such, before letting him taste the awaited breakfast already laid out on the table, he reminded the boy that they should not merely do the customary ablutions and prayers of a very special morning, since it was God’s will, blessed be, that Shavuot—the great ancient festival commemorating the giving of the Ten Commandments to the patriarch Moses, and the joyous acceptance of the Torah by the nation’s founders—fell on the Sabbath. They should also offer up prayers to their God that morning, as his uncle reminded him in his speech, asking for His divine intervention in helping them resolve in the best possible way something that seemed to have become complicated in the worst way. Although the complications may not apply to them, he added, smiling mischievously.

After almost an hour of prayers, during which Daniel thought he would faint from hunger and fatigue, Joseph Kaminsky finally signaled that his nephew could help himself to the abundant breakfast featuring warm goat’s milk (which, since it was Saturday, the Roman and apostolic María Perupatto, an Italian woman chosen by his uncle as the “Sabbath goy,” had left on the burning coals of their portable cooker), the square crackers called matzot, fruit jams, and even a fair amount of baklava dripping in honey. The feast would make the boy ask himself where his uncle found the money for such luxuries, since what Daniel Kaminsky would always remember of those days, for the rest of his long years on earth—besides the torment caused by the surrounding noise and the horrible week that followed—was the insatiable and unending hunger that nagged at him like the most loyal dog.

Filled with such a sumptuous and unusual breakfast, the boy took advantage of his constipated uncle’s delayed trip to the communal bathroom of the phalanstery where they lived to go up to the building’s rooftop. The tile was still wet with dew in those hours prior to sunrise and, defying all prohibitions, he dared to lean over the eaves to contemplate the panorama of Compostela and Acosta Streets, the heart of Havana’s growing Jewish population. The unkempt Ministry of the Interior building, an old Catholic convent from the colonial era, remained closed under lock and key as if it were dead. Under the contiguous arcade, the so-called Arco de Belén below which Calle Acosta ran, not a single being walked. Ideal Movie Theater, the German bakery, the Polish hardware store, Moshé Pipik’s restaurant (which the boy’s appetite considered the world’s greatest temptation)—all had their curtains drawn and darkened windows. Although many Jews lived around there, and as such, the majority of the businesses were Jewish-run and in some cases remained closed every Saturday, the reigning calm was not only due to the hour or to the fact that it was the Sabbath, Shavuot day, synagogue day, but also because at that instant, while Cubans slept the day away, the majority of the area’s Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews were picking out their best clothes and getting ready to go out with the same purpose as the Kaminskys.

The silence of the wee hours, his uncle’s kiss, the unexpected breakfast, and even the happy coincidence that Shavuot fell on Saturday had really only come to confirm Daniel Kaminsky’s childish expectation of the day ahead. Because the reason for his early start was that, at Havana’s port, at some point around sunrise, the arrival was expected of the passenger ship the S.S. Saint Louis, which had set sail from Hamburg fifteen days prior and aboard which traveled 937 Jews authorized to emigrate by the German National Socialist government. And amid the Saint Louis’s passengers were Dr. Isaiah Kaminsky, his wife, Esther Kellerstein, and their small daughter, Judith—in other words, little Daniel Kaminsky’s father, mother, and sister.

Excerpted from HERETICS: a novel by Leonardo Padura, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner, to be published in March 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Leonardo Padura. Translation copyright © 2017 by Anna Kushner. All rights reserved.