Noir

A concise history of Cuban crime fiction

Emilio J. Gallardo-Saborido

Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

Jesús Gómez-de-Tejada

Instituto Universitario de Estudios sobre América Latina (IEAL)

Universidad de Sevilla

In 2015, the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature winner was the Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes. The jury’s report highlighted, among other achievements, his interest in listening to “popular voices and the lost stories of others” and described his work as “a superb adventure of dialogue and freedom”. For crime fiction lovers, the granting of this award was a real boost since that genre had been questioned many times in different academic circles. Besides, although Padura has cultivated various genres, he stands out especially for being the creator of a series of detective novels starring an unusual hero or anti-hero, Mario Conde.

From his initial appearance in the 1991 novel Pasado Perfecto, Conde will be the key element around which Padura turns the tables on the crime novels written mainly in Cuba during the previous two decades. His critical, sometimes disappointed, but also lucid vision invites readers to review Cuba’s past and present, starting precisely in such complicated years as the early 1990s.

Even though crime fiction had not been profusely cultivated in Cuba before the revolutionary triumph of 1959, some texts deserve at least a brief mention. In 1926, the Social magazine published the collective novel Fantoches. Its plot is focused on the attempted murder of a young woman from a wealthy family. It is interesting to highlight how this work, written by eleven different authors, close to the grupo minorista (Alfonso Hernández Catá, Carlos Loveira, Jorge Mañach, etc.) to a greater or lesser extent, constitutes an avant-garde detective literary entertainment. In fact, it chronologically precedes a similar initiative carried out by members of the London Detection Club, such as Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers, captured in the 1931 novel The Floating Admiral.

Among the pioneers of Cuban detective fiction, the work of Lino Novás Calvo also stands out, especially known for the literary biography El negrero. Vida de Pedro Blanco Fernández de Trava (1932) and the non-generic volumes of short stories La luna nona y otros cuentos (1942) and Cayo Canas (1946). Between 1948 and 1952, Novás Calvo published eight crime stories in the Havana magazine Bohemia, of which he was editor-in-chief. These stories are characterised by a noirish flavour, a modality that he had defended in theoretical articles and his collected letters with Professor José Antonio Portuondo –another of the fundamental voices in the conceptualisation of the Cuban detective genre–. In addition, he gives a leading role to crime news and places the narrative focus on the revenge of the victims against their repressors. In 1991, José María Fernández Pequeño compiled these stories in the volume 8 narraciones policiales.

After the symbolic date of 1959, we had to wait until 1971 to find a detective novel that would achieve a broad resonance and serve as a pillar for future productions within the genre. We are referring to Enigma para un domingo, by Ignacio Cárdenas Acuña, a book awarded in the 1969 Cirilo Villaverde Novel Competition. Strongly inspired by the American hard-boiled novel, Cárdenas knew how to combine this foreign influence with the ideological defence of the revolutionary project. From now on, a new version of crime fiction (both detective and espionage –or counterespionage, as it is called in Cuba) would rapidly develop, adopting an apologetic tone. Thus, throughout the early 1970s, we witnessed a singular phenomenon: the creation and evolution of a new genre, that we could label as “Cuban revolutionary crime fiction”, sponsored by various government bodies (through literary competitions or mass editions). Furthermore, a corpus of critical texts that defined the genre’s features appeared at the same time, or even earlier, as the publication of the most representative works of this generic modality; works that, indeed, multiplied quantitatively in an outburst that had its epicentre in the 1970s and 1980s. Nonetheless, this multiplication of pieces contributed to its quality reduction. Another reason for the impoverishment of this literature was the excessive weight given to the ideological message. Nevertheless, among this extensive post-revolutionary production, some authors showed enhanced literary skills, as is noticed in novels such as Joy (1978) by Daniel Chavarría and Y si muero mañana (1980) by Luis Rogelio Nogueras.

Present-day contemporary Cuban crime production is characterised by both the survival of the revolutionary and the emergence of neo-noir fiction. For its part, the revolutionary modality prolongs, in essence, the features outlined since the early 1970s and privileged in the competition Anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution (sponsored by the Home Office), which since then has acted as one of the main instances of legitimisation and is still in force today. Among the authors faithful to this trend, Leonelo Abello Mesa stands out, having won the competition several times with titles such as Miami: otra vez (2006), Misión en Langley (2007) and Nieve en La Habana (2010).

Alongside this continuous revolutionary detective novel, a crime fiction linked to the Spanish-American neo-noir trend emerged and developed that, in Cuba, was initiated by Leonardo Padura Fuentes by creating the National Revolutionary Police officer previously mentioned, Mario Conde. His kinship with the neo-noir side of the genre places him alongside other detectives in Spanish and Latin American literature, such as Héctor Belascoarán, by the Mexican narrator Paco Ignacio Taibo II; Heredia, by the Chilean Ramón Díaz Eterovic; or Pepe Carvalho, by the Spanish Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. This aspect would grow, especially in the 1980s in the Hispanic peninsular and Latin American sphere, when the revolutionary model was still maintained in Cuba, albeit on the wane. The main features of neo-noir fiction allow the reader to look into the depths of the most corrupt and muddied side of the societies in which the crime stories are set. These plots usually place readers in front of a dark and perverse authority, ultimately responsible for the torn situation of, generally, a large city that is harassed by the economic and political upper spheres of the State.

Mario Conde made his name in the tetralogy “Las cuatro estaciones” (1991-1998), in which he had to solve four crimes committed in a Havana marked by corruption and famine in the crucial year of 1989. Subsequently, the trajectory of this character persists through five more titles: Adiós, Hemingway (2001) and La cola de la serpiente (2001; 2011), La neblina del ayer (2005), Herejes (2013) and La transparencia del tiempo (2018). While La cola de la serpiente adds a new case set in the recurring year 1989, the rest of the titles are projected forward in time to the 21st century. These works present various stories where the detective and historical genres intertwine with the life adventures of an increasingly aged Conde, who, having resigned from his job as a police officer, works as an old bookseller and occasional detective.

Other names such as Amir Valle and Lorenzo Lunar Cardedo also enrich the Cuban neo-noir scene. Valle’s biting novels comprise the “Descenso a los infiernos” series (2001-2008), which, through five titles, tells the story of the adventures of the police officer Alain Bec and the old delinquent Alex Vargas in the marginal neighbourhood of Centro Havana. On the other hand, Lunar’s raw vision is reflected in the trilogy “El Barrio en llama” (Que en vez de infierno encuentres gloria, 2003; La vida es un tango, 2005; Usted es la culpable, 2006), set in a suburb of the provincial city of Santa Clara, a series of novels starring police lieutenant Leo Martín. Finally, other writers and animators of the genre, such as Rebeca Murga, Rafael Grillo and Vladimir Hernández, stand out on the current Cuban scene.

In conclusion, the trajectory of Cuban crime fiction shows some distinctive features and others that are common to other Latin American countries. At the beginning of the 20th century, crime fiction, in a relatively incipient way, encountered its first exponents on the island. In this pioneering phase, the influences of the British tradition were mixed with the hard-boiled style, both marked by their desire to adapt the foreign patterns to the island’s atmosphere. In the 70s of the last century, the revolutionary, strongly ideologized, style emerged, which, after a solid hegemony for two decades, from the 90s onwards, shared the stage with the neo-noir style. This last version of the genre in Cuba has grown in line with its treatment in other Hispanic spheres, to the point of having acquired a significant national and international projection.

Further readings:

Braham, Persephone. 2004. Crime against the State. Crime against Persons. Detective Fiction in Cuba and Mexico. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fernández Pequeño, José M. 1994. Cuba: la narrativa policial entre el querer y el poder (1973-1988).Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente.

Gallardo-Saborido, E. J., Gómez-de-Tejada, J. 2017. La literatura policial del Bloque del Este en la revista cubana Enigma (1986-1988). Revista de Letras, 57.2: 53-71.

García Talaván, Paula. 2014. La novela neopolicial latinoamericana: una revuelta ético-estética del género. Cuadernos Americanos, 2.148: 63-85.

Padura, Leonardo. 2000. Modernidad, posmodernidad y novela policial. La Habana: Ediciones Unión.

Sánchez Zapatero, Javier, Martín Escribà, Àlex. 2014. La novela criminal cubana. Cuadernos de Investigación Filológica, 40: 171-189.

Simpson, A. S. 1990. Detective Fiction from Latin America. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Uxó, Carlos. 2021. El género policial en Cuba. Novela policial revolucionaria, neopolicial y teleseries. Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien: Peter Lang. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3726/b17689

Wilkinson, Stephen. 2006. Detective Fiction in Cuban Society. Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien: Peter Lang.

Translated by Laura Cabeza Muñoz

Acknowledgments:

The authors of this piece would like to mention the kind contribution of the Instituto Universitario de Estudios sobre América Latina (IEAL), University of Seville, Spain, in relation to its translation from the Spanish original version. A shorter version of this text (in Spanish) has been used as script for a podcast of the series “Háblame de CSIC”: https://delegacion.andalucia.csic.es/hablame-de-csic/. We gratefully acknowledge that the cover of the magazine Misterio proceeds from an original from the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, Havana.


Female villainy in twenty-first-century French crime fiction

by Ciara Gorman, Queen’s University Belfast

Ciara Gorman gave a paper on Female Villainy at The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR)  and kindly shared the video with us; please watch it here:

Video linkhttps://www.sas.ac.uk/videos-and-podcasts/culture-language-and-literature/representations-female-villainy-21st-century

IMLR Video Recording Transcript

Hi! My name is Ciara Gorman and I’m a first-year PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, in the department of French. My research is focused on the representations of female villainy in twenty-first-century French crime fiction.

I’ve been fascinated by crime fiction my whole life; I grew up reading Agatha Christie, watching detective serials on TV, playing Cluedo… This might be relatable, because crime fiction – in all its multi-media forms, from film to TV to podcasts – is attractive to many people. In France, crime fiction is an institution; in 2014, one in every five novels sold there was a polar,[1] and sales of crime novels account for around 17% of all novels sold per annum in France.[2] The ‘crime novel’, like the genre itself, is wonderfully diverse, and all of its subgenres are popular in France – from the classic roman policier or detective novel, to historical mysteries, to noir thrillers. General literature has also been infiltrated by crime tropes, as they make appearances in books not technically or typically classified as ‘crime fiction’. Several of these crime subgenres are represented in the corpus of my thesis. I’m working with four books, the covers of which you can see on this slide, all published in the last ten years or so. Fred Vargas is one of the most prolific and popular crime fiction authors in France, same with Karine Giebel; Pierre Lemaitre, who wrote Alex in 2011, is a Prix-Goncourt laureate and so is Leïla Slimani, who won that same prestigious prize in 2016 for this novel, Chanson douce. All of these novels tell different stories, all of them have different generic forms, but they’re all united by one character: a female perpetrator. That character, too, exists on a scale in these novels: in one, she’s a serial killer, in another a murderer of children; she’s a young woman, an old woman, a nanny, a professional assassin. I’m interested in three specific aspects of the representation of these female criminals: why and where they commit crime, and what imagery is associated with them.

My thesis currently has a four-part structure, as you can see here. Chapter One evaluates the role of villains, and of villainy itself, in crime fiction. Villains are really an integral component of any narrative: they throw the heroine’s ‘goodness’ into relief by their ‘badness’, and their evil deeds are often the motor that propels the story forwards. Their actions cause us to reel back in horror, and yet we are compelled to keep looking. This is right at the heart of what makes crime fiction itself so popular; Louis Vax describes it as a simultaneous process of attraction and repulsion.[3] If you’ve ever watched a crime drama where a murder is shown, you’ll know what I mean: you want to look away, because it’s uncomfortable, but you can’t, because it’s part of the story, and you want to know the story ends. This sort of morbid fascination with villains in crime fiction can be increased when the perpetrator is a woman because it’s not what we might be used to seeing – we need only look at the popularity of shows like Killing Eve, or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as evidence. We know that fictional characters often reflect or interrogate societal realities, and teach us lessons about how to be in the world – that’s why we talk about characters as ‘role models’ or ‘examples of what not to do’. So what do female villains, specifically, have to say about issues like gender, justice, policing, capitalism, desire, hatred, love? What messages do we, the reading public, glean from their behaviour as we unconsciously evaluate it for tips, tricks, limitations, warnings – as we do with all characters in fiction? These are the questions at the heart of my thesis – questions about representation, feminism, fiction and reality.

In Chapter Two, I want to look at the motives assigned to our female perpetrators; put simply, why do they commit their crimes? The answer is double: vengeance and breakdown. In Alex and Quand sort la recluse, our female villains murder six and ten people respectively, as an act of vengeance for unspeakable abuse, vengeance that was long in the planning and exquisite in the execution (if you’ll pardon the pun). In Chanson douce, Louise, our perpetrator, murders the children she cares for as a result of a breakdown in her mental health, which has been slowly collapsing over the course of the novel. Louise’s motives for murder have as much to say about capitalism, motherhood and the exploitation of care workers as they do about crime. None of our female villains have ‘simple’ reasons for murder; this is part of what makes their characters so complex.

In Chapter Three, I shift my focus to the places associated with female villains in the novels: where do they commit crime? What spaces do they move through, and what can we learn from this? There are three important places to consider in my corpus: the carceral space, the domestic space, and the city. In the hardboiled crime novel, the city – in its anonymity, its violence, its corruption – is as central a character to the story as the private eye. In Alex, the anonymity of the city harms her when she is kidnapped right off the street and it’s almost impossible for the police to track her down, amongst all the people who go missing in cities every day. Later, that same anonymity hides her, when she’s trying to escape detection by those very police. This is particularly striking when we consider that Alex is a woman, and the city is so often coded as dangerous to women – but here, Alex is the danger. She’s as anonymous and unpredictable as the city, and that’s a significant element in how we understand her as a villain.

Finally, there’s Chapter Four, which will examine the particular imagery associated with each of our female perpetrators. A great example here is Irène, the villain in Quand sort la recluse. She is closely linked to the image of the recluse spider, not only because her weapon of choice is spider venom, but because she remains mostly out of sight in the novel, lurking in the background in her web of deceit. What can we learn from this association between spiders and women – a long-standing one, with its roots in Greek mythology – resurging in contemporary crime fiction? How does the animalisation of Irène contribute to her character as a woman seeking justice outside of the law?  This leads me to the larger questions which inform my research work. We might use this particular notion of the vengeful woman as an example – because Alex and Irène are taking long-planned revenge against a group of people who participated in their rape, assault and prostitution as young children. Does that knowledge change how we think about their crimes, about their likely punishment? I think it does, and this is significant considering that how we deal with allegations of historical sexual abuse is a topic very much in the limelight. Engagement with this issue in contemporary crime fiction is channelled through the figure of the female villain who is also a survivor of abuse. This is what Di Ciolla and Pasolini (2018) describe as the ‘two-way traffic’ between crime fiction and real life; as the fiction draws its inspiration from real life crime, criminals and general society, so we learn to think differently about that real life through engagement with the fiction. And so these contemporary female villains seem to push us beyond the film noir stereotype of the beautiful, deadly, shallow femme fatale; they push us into the territory of philosophising on what justice looks like, what a society that continually disbelieves and denigrates women who speak up about sexual violence has to reckon with when those same women decide to seek their own kind of recompense, outside of the system that pays only lip-service to the ideals of equality and the zealous pursuit of justice that it claims to uphold. It’s my firm belief that these characters move the dial in discourses of justice and accountability in crime fiction, and that we need to pay attention to where the needle is now pointing


[1]Julie Guesdon, ‘Dans l’édition, le polar tient bon’, France Inter, 20th October 2017  <https://www.franceinter.fr/culture/dans-l-edition-le-polar-tient-bon> [accessed 11th June 2020].

[2]Équipe BePolar, ‘Les chiffres et le palmarès des ventes du genre polar dévoilés par l’Observatoire de la librairie’, BePolar, <https://www.bepolar.fr/Les-chiffres-et-le-palmares-des-ventes-du-genre-Polar-devoiles-par-l-Observatoire-de-la-librairie>, [accessed 11th June 2020].

[3] Louis Vax, ‘Le sentiment du mystère dans le conte fantastique et le roman policier’, Les Études philosophiques, Nouvelle Série, 6(1), 1951, p 65. Please note that in the video recording, I mistakenly attribute this citation to Marc Lits, another scholar of crime fiction studies.

Caribbean Noir (2) – CFP

Confiant Pepin

The  Centre Aixois d’Etudes Romanes (Aix-Marseille University) calls for papers for its 2nd conference on  Caribbean Crime Fiction in Spanish, French and English.  The conference will take place on May 28 & 29, 2020, in  Aix-en-Provence.

All submissions must be received by 30 September 2019.

Learn more, including how to submit your paper here , or contact the organisers :

Nelly Rajaonarivelo : nelly.rajaonarivelo@univ-amu.fr

Dante Barrientos Tecún : dante.barrientos-tecun@univ-amu.fr

To see the full call (and some impressive art), click here

 

 

Noir & Journalism (CFP)

No pockets

 

Call for papers

 Noir & Journalism

University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour

University Savoie Mont-Blanc,  Chambéry,

October 1st to 4th, 2019

An international conference, investigating the multiple  relationships, influences and representations linking crime narratives with journalism will take place in France, in October 2019 (1st to 4th), in presence of authors Dominique Manotti and Leonardo Padura. The conference venues are located on two campuses : in Chambéry, on October the 1st  and 2nd and in Pau, on October the 3rd  and 4th .

The full programme of the conference (In French) can be accessed here.

Please send 300 word abstracts by the 4th of May  2019 

to the Organizers of the conference:

– Emilie Guyard (University of Pau)

emilie.guyard@univ-pau.fr

Myriam Roche (Savoie Mont Blanc University)

myriam.roche@univ-smb.fr

Journalism Conference

 

 

Hell’s Gate, a review

A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast

hell's gate

Laurent Gaudé – Hell’s Gate (Translated by Jane Aitken & Emily Boyce), Gallic Books, 04/05/2017. Original title La porte des enfers, 2008.

“Bring Pippo back to me, or, if you can’t, at least bring me the head of the man who killed him” (p. 118)

Taxi driver Matteo De Nittis and his wife Giuliana live an ordinary life in the city of Naples until their 8-year-old son is caught in the crossfire during the feuding of local mobsters. Confronted with the death of their child, the life they once shared is shattered. Giuliana is consumed by the deep anger of a mother who has lost her child and demands that he be returned to her by God, a miracle, or her husband. Matteo meanwhile is traumatised by the death he witnessed and drives aimlessly through the Neapolitan night, riven by grief and sorrow and drifting more and more into a state of mind that is closer to death than life.

Matteo encounters creatures of the night, those who live their lives on the streets of Naples at the edge of society who are “nothing but shadows” in the world of the living. And once he is introduced to a half-mad professor who tells him that this world and the world of the dead are not as far apart from each other as you would assume, Matteo does not hesitate. If there is to be any chance of bringing his son back from the dead, he will take it. He would step through the gates of hell… Twenty years later a man called Fillipo De Nittis is gathering his courage to confront the man who killed him.

If you were to mix Dante, Kafka and Hitchcock and add a bad LSD-trip you would probably get Gaudé’s Hell’s Gate or at least something equally disturbing. Hell’s Gate is a novel about life, death and what is in between, but it is first and foremost a story about loss, grief, and yes, suffering. Gaudé sends his characters through literal hell throughout their mad scramble to remain sane, and the reader has the masochistic pleasure of following their emotional spiral of loss and misery through the pages. The characters are brilliantly written, and it is hard to imagine a more peculiar cast for a story about loss: “He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café.”

Hell’s Gate shines in its deep understanding of tragedy and the sense of loss and the human desire for salvation. Gaudé effortlessly combines genre elements of crime fiction, magical realism, and fantasy together in an uncanny and thought-provoking pit of a book, that, even though only about 200 pages, is packed with philosophical implications impinging upon the human condition, society and death itself. The language must be praised for its dramatic and vivid imagery as well as a certain stoicism that still manages to convey a sense of compassion. Boyce and Aitkin have outdone themselves in their translation and, thanks to them, Hell’s Gate reads as if it were not a translation at all.

One strong point of the novel is the characters and their journey through pain and misery. In this Gaudé is unrelenting and towards the end of the novel in particular one wishes for even the barest of happy endings, just to relieve the characters of even a fraction of their pain. This is, of course, not forthcoming. Although a glimmer of hope remains at the end of the story, Hell’s Gate is an unremittingly bleak tale and is not for the weak of heart. But if you can endure the pain, then Hell’s Gate will make for an intense and surreal read that seamlessly weaves the reality of human tragedy with the fantastic that will mesmerize.

Irish Stew: a heady (French) recipe

A review by Daniel Magennis, PhD Student at Queen’s University Belfast.


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Chers lecteurs … Prenez garde : vous avez bu le seul poison qu’il est impossible de recracher. Les images et les idées que j’ai semées dans vos têtes feront leur chemin, à votre insu. Elles vous investissent sournoisement. Vous ne leur échapperez pas. Vous êtes infectés. [p. 235] Continue reading