Leonardo Padura and his readings of history

Por: Por José Antonio Michelena

About the Carlos Fuentes Medal

With the conference “The novel before the mirror of history”, the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura opened the Carlos Fuentes Literary Salon of the Guadalajara International Book Fair – in its special edition online 2020 – an honor that corresponded to him for having received the medal that bears the name of the distinguished Mexican novelist, a tribute that is paid each year to the author of The most transparent region since his death in 2012.

In a video made for the occasion, Carlos Fuentes’ widow, Silvia Lemus, welcomed Padura to the Literary Salon, thanked him for being in charge of opening all the literary activities of the FIL in this new virtual reality, and expressed that the medal, now delivered in symbolic form, will reach him physically at the moment when circumstances allow it.

In turn, Raúl Padilla López, president of the FIL of Guadalajara, noted: “This year we are pleased to honor a great narrator, journalist, essayist and screenwriter, unequivocally regarded as one of the great feathers of the continent; it is not wasteful to mention that he is also one of the most recognized Ibero-American writers. His creativity, acuity and narrative ingenuity have earned him recognition as the Princess of Asturias of Letters.”

Precisely the Princess of Asturias Award, in the category of Communication and Humanities, was awarded to the FIL of Guadalajara this 2020 for its contribution of thirty-four years in the service of literary culture, a fact highlighted by Padura, who expressed:

“It is an immense honour for me that the DECORATED FIL of 2020 congrats me with the Carlos Fuentes Medal, created to remember the work of one of the great writers of the language and of our times. And, with the medal, give me … the responsibility to open the FIL Literary Forum, a distinction in which I have been preceded by several authors that just reading their names scares me for what it means to me to join them in this task. And, under the circumstances of this year that I have already called tremendous, I must do so from Havana, where I am and where I live, and where I practice my job as a Cuban writer. And for all this I thank the organizers of the FIL for this honor, which places Cuba and a Cuban writer, at the center of a fairly awarded book fair.”

Upon receiving the Carlos Fuentes Medal, Leonardo Padura became a very select group of writers, consisting of Jonathan Franzen (2012), David Grossman and Mario Vargas Llosa (2013); Nélida Piñón and Sergio Ramírez (2014); Salman Rushdie (2015), Norman Manea (2016), Paul Auster (2017), Orhan Pamuk (2018), and Luisa Valenzuela (2019).

The online conference, given by Padura on November 29, is an analysis of the different ways he has read and interpreted history to write four of his novels: The Novel of My Life, The Man Who Loved Dogs, Heretics, and The Transparency of Time.

The tour of this area of his work has a very peculiar beginning, from the linguistic identity: the discovery of a gastronomic nexus that connected him with the poet José María Heredia, the quimbombó. The significance of this finding, the writer explains it in this way: “Finding through a representative element of Cuban cuisine a link between the founder Heredia, who died in Mexico shortly after realizing his brief return to Cuba, and my own person, almost two centuries later, was an essential find when studying, first, and proposing to me then write the novel of the poet’s life.”

And it turned out that the historical life of José María Heredia, seen from the perspective of his permanence in time, opened to the novelist, he declares, a door to the better understanding of a past reality, more or less remote which, in certain essences, turned out to be his too.

According to Padura recounted at the conference, he entered history to understand the intimate nature of his country, the keys of belonging, but also to better understand himself; and knew that in the hands of a novelist, history could be used to “reveal from an intimate, dramatic, even subjective angle, the living existence of a great process manifested in and through history, in a visceral way that is sometimes uns appetited by the science of history.”

Later, he recounts the process that led him to write The Man Who Loved Dogs, the novel that has given him greater international recognition; describes the elements that accumulated, those that led him to this new confrontation with history; the revelation that meant, to him, to know that Ramón Mercader, Trotski’s killer, lived in Havana for the last years of his life, which is tantamount to saying that he lived in his own physical space.

From this revelation, he germinated the idea of writing that historical novel which is also a novel of contemporaneity, because the drama starring Leon Trostki, Ramón Mercader and his mentor Stalin, was part of his personal destiny, “of the destiny of the society in which I was born, raised, lived and… still alive.”

Padura then became interested in the analysis of Heretics, the novel where he reflects on the search for individual freedom in contemporary Cuban society. The questions posed in this novel are philosophical, religious, political, artistic, historical, sociological, anthropological: “What is freedom? Are we free? Are we free living in society? Are we free to think with our heads even if we agree to limit freedom of action according to the rules imposed by a social contract without which community life would not be possible?”

And placing them in the Cuban context, or as the writer says, “approaching the heart of the question”: “Can a young Cuban of the 21st century be free to think and exist as he decides or society directs him to live in a certain way, to express himself within certain margins, to think with certain reasons?”

Finally, the novelist discusses the permanence of history and its manifestations over time: “I wrote a novel in which I go to history to reveal those possible repetitions, traces, which I defined in the title of my book as The Transparency of Time”.

The novel shows “those rare transparencies of time, thanks to which certain historical moments and events are replicated, seem to fit, for in all of them the victim of history is man and the engine of history is violence, even the violence that can generate – which today generates – faith in the powers of higher beings , of gods, virgins, prophets.”

Summarizing his experience as the author of historical novels, Leonardo Padura noted that the archives of history, which give us so many lessons of permanence of his speculative ability, of his possible traces and his stubborn persistence, are a privileged material to approach some of the answers he seeks, and to remind him of the questions that, as a human being, social and historical , they obsess him.

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