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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Leonardo Padura

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To purchase Heretics

Title: Heretics
Author: Leonardo Padura
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 525 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Heretics - US
Herejes - US
Heretics - UK
Heretics - Canada
Hérétiques - France
Ketzer - Deutschland
Eretici - Italia
Herejes - España
  • Spanish title: Herejes
  • Translated by Anna Kushner

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Our Assessment:

A- : effectively elaborate story, nicely drawn-out across the ages

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 14/4/2017 Barry Forshaw
NZZ . 13/8/2014 Knut Henkel
El País . 21/8/2013 Juan Carlos Galindo
The Spectator . 6/5/2017 Boyd Tonkin
The Times . 25/3/2017 Siobhan Murphy
Wall St. Journal . 10/3/2017 Tom Nolan
The Washington Post . 4/5/2017 Charles Lane
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2017 Elizabeth Fifer

  From the Reviews:
  • "It’s as much an astringent picture of Padura’s own society as a crime fiction outing." - Barry Forshaw, The Guardian

  • "Einfallsreich hat Padura diese drei Erzählstränge miteinander verflochten und dabei seiner Vorliebe für Historisches freien Lauf gelassen." - Knut Henkel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "La mejor novela de las ocho que ha escrito Padura con Conde como protagonista. Herejes es una novela sobre el dolor. El de la pérdida de los seres queridos, el de la pérdida de la esperanza, de las ilusiones. El dolor del desarraigo, de la frustración por no poder ser lo que se quiere. Se trata de una obra compleja" - Juan Carlos Galindo, El País

  • "(T)he genial gadfly of Cuban literature has built a digressive, eccentric but deeply absorbing novel: part-detective story, part-historical enquiry, part-reflection on the ‘sacred’ qualities of great art and human freedom. (...) Charming, rambling, erudite, Padura dwells on the gifts and costs of heretical liberty in art, politics and religion." - Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator

  • "Heretics is part history, part detective story, but its overarching theme is the tension between the limitless yearnings of the human spirit and the limitations of geography and politics." - Charles Lane, The Washington Post

  • "This rich and brilliant evocation of Jewish history will only burnish the already extraordinary reputation of the author (...) On one level Leonardo Padura explores lost faith in the Communist utopia created by Castro and the Cuban Revolution. On another he portrays one man’s rejection of Judaism in 1939 when he sees the Saint Louis, with his family and nine hundred other Jews, sail back to Europe from the Havana harbor" - Elizabeth Fifer, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Heretics is a long, elaborate novel. It features Mario Conde, the Cuban ex-policeman and now sometime antiquarian bookseller (or book-finder) and occasional PI who Padura introduced in Havana Blue, but this eighth Conde-book is the most ambitious, and extends considerably beyond just the simple (or not so simple) local cases of the 'Havana Quartet' et al. It is, arguably, three books in one -- indeed, it is divided into four sections, and each of the first three ('Book of Daniel', 'Book of Elias', 'Book of Judith') is long enough -- and sufficiently rounded off -- that it could pass for a stand-alone novel(la). And the middle one doesn't even feature Conde at all.
       The story begins in near-present-day Cuba, in 2007, when Conde is hired by Elias Kaminsky, a man whose parents fled Cuba in 1958 ("Not in '59 or in '60, when almost all the Jews and people with money left here"). The family owned a small painting, attributed to Rembrandt or his school, and the long-lost painting has resurfaced, up for auction in London; Elias has managed to get the auction halted, and he's looking to fill in the gaps in the painting's trail -- wondering how and why it has suddenly resurfaced, and what happened to it in the decades it was out of sight. (A secondary question -- of how on earth the Polish-Jewish family got their hands on a Rembrandt in the first place -- is also an open one.)
       In this part of the novel, the story moves back and forth between the present-day -- Conde and Kaminsky in conversation and seeking out clues in run-down not-so-modern Cuba -- and some flashbacks to the past, both in Elias' retelling, and chapters set first in 1939 and then the mid- and late 1950s. The history of the Kaminsky family, and the painting, is a tragic one: Elias' father Daniel was sent ahead from Europe to Cuba because he was the easiest to get out, and his father, mother, and sister tried to follow when they finally could -- in 1939, aboard the ill-fated St.Louis, the ship carrying 937 Jews that made it to Havana but was then forced to turn back, with only a handful of passengers having been allowed to disembark. The Kaminskys didn't have bribe-money -- but they were carrying something very valuable: the Rembrandt. And while the Kaminskys didn't make it off the ship, the painting did.
       The painting's presence in Cuba did, in fact impact Daniel's life -- and leaving -- though the exact circumstances can only be pieced together now, some fifty years later.
       The second part of the novel, the 'Book of Elias', is devoted entirely to another Elias, Elias Ambrosius, a seventeenth century pupil of Rembrandt's (here just 'the Maestro'), describing his apprenticeship to the master and, eventually, the painting of the artwork at the heart of the novel. A colorful story of Rembrandt's times and circumstances, this may seem a long digression; certainly, it takes the novel someplace completely different -- but, aside from fitting in with the novel's bigger themes, it does also provide satisfying details to fill in some of the open questions in the modern-day mystery.
       The last major section of the novel, the 'Book of Judith', finds Conde being asked by a girl he encountered in his Kaminsky-investigations almost a year earlier to find a missing girl. It is the summer of 2008 by now, and the girl's friend, Judith Torres, has been missing for ten days. She is part of the local 'emo' crowd -- Padura perhaps a bit too fascinated by the different cliques Cuban youngsters form and fads they pick up in trying to escape contemporary Cuba's numbing hopelessness -- and Conde hunts around, in what is essentially a more traditional mystery-case, the kind familiar from previous Conde-adventures. Yet in figuring out this case, he also makes some connections to the one of the painting, and the final pieces of the bigger puzzle also fall into place. Yes, Padura takes a very roundabout path in resolving all his mysteries in Heretics, but eventually does get around to it -- and satisfyingly so.
       Unsurprisingly, heresy, in its different variations, plays a significant role in the novel. Most obviously, young Elias Ambrosius: as Elias Kaminsky notes, without even knowing the details: "That Jew could have been condemned for painting people" -- idolatry ! -- and, indeed, the painter became an outcast in his time. History does not repeat itself in the novel, but varieties of heresy and being outcast recur throughout, from the teen-rebellious kind, of Judith and her friends, to the Kaminskys fleeing the Nazis, and being turned away by the corrupted Cuban regime, to the pre-revolutionary opposition in 1950s Cuba. Conde and his group stay rooted in place -- like much of Havana itself, stuck in time --, but Heretics is full of exiles and wanderers.
       Grounding Conde's story in the familiar (from the previous Conde books ...) -- his circle of friends -- and adding some domestic semi-tension -- the question of whether or not Conde and his girlfriend, Tamara, should (or want to) get married --, Heretics fits neatly, loosely, in the bigger series -- but is also entirely satisfying as a stand-alone (or, indeed, introduction to Padura's favorite protagonist).
       The vivid, often bleak depiction of near-present-day Cuba is certainly of interest, and Padura also does well in describing earlier periods -- all marked by a corruption that suggests a fundamental rot in the country. Even the disillusionment of the contemporary teenage generation is quite well conveyed. He does interaction very well: conversation is used to explain a great deal, and to tell many stories, but Padura has that narrative technique down pat, and it mostly sounds entirely natural (Conde's striking attitude generally helps). Even the extended period-piece, in seventeenth century Holland, is very well done -- feeling a bit out of place, or at least entirely distinct, but never less than entertaining.
       The shifts in time -- both in the individual sections, from chapter to chapter, and especially in the long, essentially separate middle section -- make for a narrative that feels a bit unbalanced (that's a long, long detour back to the seventeenth century), but it really does all come together in the end, very nicely.
       Heretics is easily Padura's most accomplished work -- and a thoroughly enjoyable extended read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 March 2017

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Heretics: Reviews: Leonardo Padura Fuentes: Other books by Leonardo Padura Fuentes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes was born in 1955.

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© 2017 the complete review

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