Encyclopedia » Literature & Cinema » Personas decentes, monsters and murdered reputations

Personas decentes, monsters and murdered reputations

A journey through time from Yarini's Havana to that of The Rolling Stones, passing through that of the artists stripped of their art, victims of an atrocious and ruthless massacre against creativity.

Personas decentes Leonado Padura Cuba

... It's like tropical hurricanes: they pass, they bother, and then they leave, they get lost... [Image: LPDS]

Whoever considers decent among you, cast the first stone.... Through the detective genre and by the hand of his co-star, the former police officer and now detective, Mario Conde, the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura gives us in Personas decentes the opportunity to get on his time machine and, with continuous comings and goings, travel between the Havana of the first decade of the last century and that of the second of the present one, making use of the aforementioned and habitual character in his detective works in the latter, while for the Cuban capital of the early 20th century Padura resorts to the real and mythical figure of the pimp of Italian and Spanish descent, Alberto Yarini y Ponce de León, a true local idol whose charisma, like a magnet, exerted a powerful attraction on the most diverse social strata of the time, from the most disadvantaged classes to the most affluent, a magnetism that inspector Arturo Saborit Amargó, the other protagonist of the novel, could not resist either.

Although that fascination aroused by a good-looking, educated, refined and courteous man, capable of standing up for his homeland and any Cuban, especially for those discriminated against due to their race or social status, it was still for a few a mask behind which a cold and calculating person was hidden, with a special and overwhelming gift of people with which to manipulate his victims to achieve his goals. Only some of the women whom the pimp protected in exchange for receiving the benefit that the sexual exploitation of their bodies brought him, seemed to be aware of who their protector really was. Someone who, in a harsh and desperate post-war context, had seen the gold mine to capture the manpower that would make their businesses flourish.

A rara avis of the back streets

[LPDS/Wombo Art]

And it is that Padura himself masterfully conveys to the reader that mixture of fascination, hypnotic attraction, admiration and even compassion for the gallo de San Isidro, although Inspector Saborit's conscience is at the same time used by the writer as that handbrake to pull when we let ourselves be dazzled by shining facades behind which gloomy rooms can be hidden. Those same gloomy rooms in which his lesser-caliber employees produced for him. Apparently, as can be seen from reading the book and taking into account the sordid world that surrounds prostitution, Yarini used to treat her workers quite correctly, not the way his rivals in the business could use it. He even lived surrounded by a harem of prostitutes, his favorites, who lived in his own house, but were not exempt from their daily appointment with clients. It must be some kind of dubious honor to be selected to share a room with the owner of the company, a perverse privilege to aspire to, available to a select few. Not only his fellow citizens, of all classes and conditions, yearned for the privilege of meeting Yarini, revering him and receiving his greeting, but he had also taken it upon himself to establish among his staff of employees the privilege of belonging to the circle closest to him. Which, we insist, did not exempt them from continuing to exercise and produce.

Thus, while Padura draws us an atypical, tender and understanding pimp with his women, he warns us on many occasions that he does not stop using them as merchandise, condemned to ostracism during and, above all, after their productive life. The fascination for Yarini recalls, saving the distance, the one professed in the crazy and happy 20s of the last century to the North American gangsters who drove the authorities crazy, even being considered by the citizenship as true Robin Hood, thanks to their large donations to charitable organizations, whose real purpose was none other than to hide their illegal activities and launder their image. In the case of the leader of the guayabitos in the Havana area of Tolerancia, politics seemed like his perfect springboard to leave the underworld, or who knows if to expand his power and influence over it and their rivals in the business.

A bit of glamor and Satisfaction to freeze the sorrows

If the adventures of Yarini and Saborit -with two mysterious murders as part of the plot- dominate the story of the novel in the period between the end of Spanish colonialism and the first dawn of independent Cuba -with yankee droit du seigneur-, those of Mario Conde do so a century later, helping in the investigation of two other strange murders that coincide in time with the so-called thaw of the frozen relations between Cuba and the US. A thaw that does not convince Conde, although Havana is preparing in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century to receive the first black president of their northern neighbors, some satanic majesties demonized for decades along with other fallen angels of rock , a fashion show by one of the most emblematic brands in the catwalk world, and the shooting of a film that is part of a saga of those Hollywood blockbusters. Fast and furious, especially fast; This is how the realist -never pessimist- and good Conde believes that these events will happen, that they will evaporate and diffuse in the atmosphere like the water fallen after a strong storm.

If Inspector Saborit's conscience prevents him from perceiving as normal what by all accounts should be abnormal -that a policeman be honored by the friendship and protection of a prominent businessman from the underworld-, Conde's also seems to be very clear when making balance and presenting accounts -or settling them- with one of the main ideals and objectives of the Revolution after 1959: the arrival of the so-called New Man -«And the New Man, where the hell was the New Man?, the detective wonders. A conscience that continually knocks on his door and lacerates him upon learning of the worst crimes committed against a specific sector of the population: the mutilation of the creative freedom of intellectuals and artists -poets, writers, painters, musicians...-. A guild with which Conde himself identifies; not in vain, in addition to his passion for writing in the little free time left to him by the struggle for his livelihood, which sporadically involves the buying and selling of old books.

It seems as if the author, apart from exposing the drama that seeing their sensitivity and creative capacity cut off means for any person, wanted to pay tribute to those who, for example in the case of painting, not only «lost their ability» to express their art, but they even ended up giving up on recovering said skills, after their reputation was «murdered», precisely by those who would even end up selling the works of some artists, after getting hold of them in the most despicable and miserable way, as the case of one of the murdered men that Conde investigates in the novel.

«Hate, envy, rancor grow here like weeds...»

Personas decentes leaves us with interesting reflections, such as the one pronounced by a character named José José Pérez Pérez during one of the intense and dramatic dialogues that are part of the work:

(...) The question is anthropological, historical, and I have thought about it very much. The problem is that the people of this country like to believe the bad in people rather than exalt their virtues. They always react as if they were glad for the misfortunes of others, as if the failures of others reaffirmed them and erased theirs... Here, to stick their heads out, many climb on the shoulders of others. It is that we are not a good breed, that is why very screwed things have happened to us and happen to us, and I think we deserve them. Hate, envy, rancor grow here like weeds..., and you can imagine what fruits those weeds bear when you fertilize them and then project them onto society: frustration, an inferiority complex that hides in some air of adequacy, an unhealthy attraction for appearances, opportunism and masking... The weight of uncertainty of never being convinced of what we are... (...) My last investigation was about internal disputes between Cuban liberators during the Ten Years War. And I came to the conclusion that if we Cubans hadn't fought among ourselves, we would have won that war. But we wear ourselves out in shit, in regionalisms, in prominence... As always, we screwed up more fighting among us than against the enemy... (...)

If you are of Spanish origin and have just read the above excerpt, it may sound somewhat familiar to you; if not the case, we apologize for the audacity to speculate on your own thoughts on the matter.

Returning to the reflections of José Pérez to the second power, he leaves a lapidary sentence when affirming that:

(...) When power is cruel, human pettiness goes to parties. Here the party has been very long and very busy... (...)

There are several parallels that, with that brilliant handling of chronology, of the leaps back and forth in time to which Padura has accustomed us, are established in Personas decentes. Thus, for example, just as debauchery seized Havana at the end of 1909 before the imminent arrival of the end of the world after the supposedly overwhelming and devastating passage of Comet Halley, it also would happen 106 years later, but for the opposite reason, that is, not because of the arrival of the apocalypse, but because of the birth of a new and long-awaited stage, of starting over with a clean slate that for many, also supposedly, brought the thaw.

(...) Halley's comet was approaching us, and anxiety was growing. The end of the year 1909 was also approaching, and the frenzy grew. Nothing seemed important, nothing was taken seriously, no one planned their lives on long terms. The city went crazy, had fun, was perverted. The delirium kept on ascending march. (...)

[LPDS/Wombo Art]
(...) Obama had left, the Rolling Stones had just arrived, and the city continued sweating its fever of lust, gluttony, fun, waste, as if it were living the final days of planetary existence. Or the first of another historical... era. (...)

Thaw or tropical hurricane?

Despite the revelry and waste that Conde observes night after night in his other job as a security guard in a successful pub for the incipient Havana nightlife, he seems not to have it all with him and, as has happened on previous occasions, he understands that everyone is selling the bear's skin before catching it, as can be seen in the following conversation with the person in charge -rather, who shows the face- of the nightclub:

— There are people who believe things...

— Yeah...they think school's over, and they don't know this is a recess. And sometimes they even forget that the teachers and janitors are watching, stick in hand....

— It almost seems like another country -Yoyi commented.

— Almost, but no... Things can get out of control, so now comes the braking and return to the previous position. Everyone back, everything back.

— No, Conde, there are things that can no longer be reversed.

— Oh Yoyi... your innocence moves me. Let this wind pass and you will see how they tighten the pins again. It's like tropical hurricanes: they pass, they bother, and then they're gone, they get lost...

— Why are you so pessimistic, man?

— Realistic is what I am... because I am sixty-two years old and I have lived all of them here, all of them.

In the words of Leonardo Padura himself, alluding to the character of Mario Conde, «I needed this policeman to be incorruptible because he is constantly judging a society in which corruption occurs. And that is why the word decency appears so much in these novels, and in this one he says: "Well, we are going to specify this in a historical look, through Cuban time, of what decency has meant." And that through him I have a very special position to look at the Cuban reality, which is to see that reality from a corner of a Havana neighborhood. Conde looks at reality at the level of a man's eyes, in a Havana neighborhood, which is his neighborhood, from which he looks at the world. That neighborhood of Conde is my neighborhood, and in this novel things happen and there is also a treatise on decency».

Havana 1950s Reina Ultra Store
Reina Street in Centro Habana in the 1950s. Galiano, where was located the family home of Yarini, el Gallo de San Isidro, ends there.

America's Nice was a dream, a fleeting reality and perhaps also a nightmare for some. In the writer's own words, “this is a novel very much from Havana and very much from the Cuban historical destiny. A destiny that has made us feel many times that we want and maybe we could reach something, but that something always moves away, we never get to achieve it.»


Leonardo Padura (2022). Personas decentes. Spain: Tusquets Editores
Ángel Peña. "Leonardo Padura: «Controlar a los intelectuales es consustancial al sistema cubano»". The Objective, 13 June 2023, https://theobjective.com/cultura/2023-02-28/leonardo-padura-cuba/]