like dust in the wind

Bridget Riley, For a Summer's Day 2, 1980


Commentary on Leonardo Padura's Newly Published Novel

One of the biggest names in literature today, the Cuban Leonardo Padura, has just had his most recent novel published in Brazil. like dust in the wind, like his other works, has Cuba as its theme, but this time in a different way.

Padura proposes to tell the story of a group of friends, the Clan, apparently inseparable and who could remain together for the rest of their lives. A photograph captures that exact moment, but that's when everything starts to change. Gradually, the reader gets to know each member of the Clan. Each embodies, in different ways, human reactions to the Cuban diaspora, which began in the 1990s and has not ended yet.

Through an engaging narrative, the reader is taken to a complex country, where things are far from the silence or simplicity with which the reality of Cuba is presented by the corporate media in Brazil and in most western countries. An example of this can be seen in the distortions that surround everything about Cuba and the successes achieved by the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959, one of the greatest political events of the XNUMXth century, but always presented as a “dictatorship”.

Just remember that the Brazilian corporate media simply ignored and continues to ignore the fact that Cuba, even under a strong US embargo for over 60 years, was the only Latin American country to develop its own vaccine against Covid-19. In fact, it has developed four vaccines, one of which is inhalable, and with them immunized its population.

Another example is the political polarization that Cuba and its revolution continue to provoke in conservative sectors and even in segments that call themselves on the left. Of course, everyone can and should have their own opinion, but the problem is when that opinion is not supported by facts or, even worse, is guided by distortions and fake news. It is at this point that Padura's new novel fulfills a function that goes far beyond the pleasure and entertainment that his literature always provides.

Even the author warning that like dust in the wind it is a novel and should be read as such, the historical events it references are real. The same can be said of the social situations invoked in the book, which were also drawn from reality and from his personal and generational experience. The characters and their stories were also inspired by real individuals, sometimes the sum of several concrete people, even if their biographies, as they appear in the book, are fictitious. It is also worth noting that the places where the plot develops, from the Fontanar neighborhood, in Havana, through Barcelona, ​​in Spain, to a stud farm on the outskirts of Tacoma, in the northeast of the United States, are real.


open work

like dust in the wind it can be read in several ways. It is the story of a group of friends, their dreams and their disappointments, to the point where almost all of them, for different reasons, decided to leave the island. It is a beautiful reflection on life and friendship, made with a careful observation of every aspect of the Cuban character: music, sensuality, love, gastronomy and passions for “pelota” (baseball) and politics.

It can be read as a kind of Alexandria Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) enlarged. The four magnificent novels by Indian-born English writer Lawrence Durrell, published between 1957 and 1960, present three perspectives on the same sequence of events and characters in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during World War II. The fourth book takes place six years later on the island of Corfu, off the coast of Albania.

like dust in the wind  it can also be read as a police thriller. Padura is a master of the genre and his well-known detective Mário Conde has even won a cinematographic version, with the series Estações de Havana. The same way that The name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, this is a possibility that cannot be ruled out.

Those who do not have greater pretensions or intellectual interests can read Eco's highly erudite novel solely focused on unraveling the mystery of the repeated deaths of the inhabitants of a monastery in the Middle Ages, bypassing all discussion involving science as the path that leads to truth and knowledge.

Not by chance, Eco is the formulator of one of the most important concepts about art and literature in the XNUMXth century: the open work, with which he defends that the processes of reading and interpretation cannot presuppose a pre-defined and structured analysis of the text . On the contrary, they imply enormous freedom on the part of the reader, who has the task of extracting a personal analysis from it.

For lovers of the police genre, there is also like dust in the wind  a strange death and virtually all members of the Clan are a priori suspects. The plot is agile and very well constructed. In this new book, Padura himself explicitly pays homage to Umberto Eco, but also to Latin American authors he admires, such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

To all these possible readings, perhaps the main one is added: the history of the last 30 years in Cuba, including one of the most terrible times for the island and its inhabitants, the so-called “special period in times of peace”. That period began in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, and lasted throughout the 1990s, with the effects of this dissolution and also that of the Mutual Economic Assistance Council (Comecon), being devastating for the Cuban economy.


“Special period”

Along with 10 other countries, including East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam and Poland, Cuba was part, since 1972, of an economic and commercial bloc that functioned as a kind of Marshall Plan in a socialist version. Cuba's trade with the Comecon countries totaled around 85% of what it bought and sold. Cuba has no mineral resources, no waterfalls and no significant industry. That's why it used its main agricultural product, sugar cane, as currency for its imports. It was through her that he began to import hydrocarbons from the Soviet Union in the form of gasoline, diesel and other oil derivatives that he so needed.

Not by chance, the “special period” in Cuba can be defined mainly by the serious shortage of these products, felt by the population through frequent and long blackouts (some lasted weeks) and the lack of basic necessities. Add to this that the period radically transformed Cuban society and its economy, as it required the modification of agriculture, due to the lack of equipment and inputs for farming, the decrease in the use of automobiles and revised industry, health and diet across the country.

Cubans, who were used to a simple but satisfying life in terms of health, education, food, housing and employment, provided and guaranteed by the State, found themselves, from one moment to the next, having to live with almost nothing. Totally dependent on fossil fuel to operate, Cuban society collapsed. Transport, industrial and agricultural systems almost came to a standstill. There were large losses in productivity both in agriculture – which was dominated by modern tractors and harvesters, dependent on oil to function – and in industrial capacity.

With the decision of the Russian Federation, which followed the end of the USSR, that it had no intention of delivering the oil that the USSR had always guaranteed to Cuba, the consequences of the economic blockade by the United States, in force since 1963, became very strong. It is made. The Cuban socialist government thus saw itself with almost no alternatives.


sheriff of the world

The current President of the United States, Joe Biden, maintained and, in some respects, even intensified the commercial, economic and financial blockade of Cuba, which began even before the 1959 Revolution. arms sales to Cuba during the final months of the dictatorial regime of Fulgêncio Batista. It is worth remembering that the United States supported Batista until almost the eve of his overthrow, when they decided to abandon him, betting that they could count on the sympathy and support of the rebels at the time.

Realizing that Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara would not be docile instruments in their hands, as had always happened with previous governments, the United States embargoed exports to the island, except food and medicine, officially in retaliation for the nationalization of its companies by the revolutionaries. Detail: these companies earned rivers of money at the expense of the exploitation, misery and suffering of the Cuban people.

On February 7, 1962, the embargo or blockade, as Cubans call it, was extended to include almost all exports. In 1999, President Bill Clinton expanded the trade embargo, also prohibiting foreign subsidiaries of US companies from doing business with Cuba. Much criticized, the following year Clinton authorized the sale of “humanitarian” products from the United States to Cuba.

Always considering itself the sheriff of the world, regardless of whether a representative of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party is in power, the United States, in 1992, with the “Cuban Democracy Law”, declared that the objective was to maintain sanctions against the island “as long as the Cuban government refuses to move towards democratization and greater respect for human rights”.

Padura, who is also an essayist and columnist of the first magnitude – just remember his penultimate book published in Brazil, “Água por todo lado” (2020) – could have written a treatise on the absurdity of this blockade against Cuba, which is already the longest in all human history in times of peace. But instead of citing international laws and treaties, the enormous damage imposed on the Cuban economy or the resulting death toll, he chose to show the consequences of all this on the skin of ordinary Cuban citizens, whose human rights were never taken into account. by Uncle Sam.


As in the song of Kansas

However, anyone who imagines that like dust in the wind it is a pamphlet or even a book with denunciations against the United States. None of that. In it there are characters who both dream of the wonders advertised by Uncle Sam, as well as those who are disappointed or even those who see good and bad things in both countries. In this respect, the book is a cold shower for supporters of Manichaeism or simplistic analyzes when it comes to Cuba.

Even more. If some characters from the Cuban diaspora of the 1990s (“like dust in the wind”, in the Kansas song) disperse across several countries, many went to Europe (Spain, France) and there they also found something similar: they have criticisms and praise for the new life they begin to lead. The very official visit of Barack Obama to Cuba, in 2016, the first by a US president to the island in its entire history, divides the opinions of the Clan and even of its acquaintances who live inside and outside Cuba.

There is no lack of Cuban “balseiros” (people who immigrated illegally in precarious and improvised boats) residing in the poorest neighborhoods of Miami, who reproach Obama’s attitude as that of a “dangerous communist” who, by proposing to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba , could jeopardize the very future of the United States. But there is also no lack of those hoping that there will finally be an understanding between the two countries.

Padura, unlike most of his new characters, has not left Cuba and does not intend to. As he has said and repeated “I am a Cuban writer who lives and writes in Cuba because I cannot and do not want to be anything else, because (and I can always say that despite the most diverse regrets) I need Cuba to live and write”. Not wanting to be anything else, even facing all the problems that Cubans have experienced and are still experiencing, Padura managed to transform these stories into a kind of mosaic of what Cuban society is today.

There are characters who stayed and resisted and would never leave the island. There are those who left and want to return. There are those who return and never meet again, and there are those who were born outside of Cuba. But something connects them all: like it or not, they can't get away from Cuba and its origins.


fiction and reality

like dust in the wind is a novel written in chorus form. Gradually we get to know each of the characters and some deserve entire chapters, such as Clara (Santa Clara dos amigos), Elisa/Loreta (The woman who spoke to horses), Horacio (Quintus Horatius) and Adela (The daughter of nobody). Past, present and future are intertwined in these stories that, like all good fiction, allow us to look at reality, understand it in all its dimensions and even design possible futures.

Since the end of the USSR, the West has advocated the immediate fall of socialism in Cuba and the United States has spared no efforts to make that happen. Consider the demonstrations in the second half of 2021, in the best hybrid war style, led by Uncle Sam, whose objective was to play the island's population against the government, causing the collapse of institutions. But, once again, the ideals of Fidel and Che prevailed, even though Cuban socialism is also experiencing necessary and significant changes. Also because, if everything changes, why should only Cuban socialism remain static?

Padura ends his new novel at the beginning of the 19st century. Her characters did not know Donald Trump's supreme inhumanity against Cuba in the midst of the Covid-2013 pandemic, much less its continuation by Biden. Possibly they would have little reference to China and the new silk road, also known as the belt and road initiative, launched in XNUMX by President Xi Jinping. The objective is to outline integration routes, based on investments in land, maritime, energy and communication infrastructure, between China, Europe, Africa and America. Seventy countries are already part of the initiative, several of them Latin American, including Cuba.

Even cautious, many Cubans can give themselves the right, given this new reality of world integration proposed by China, to dream of a less hostile world and where the partnership gives way to the abominable US blockades. Cuba has done its part. While the United States and allies promote wars, drop tons of bombs on the heads of their supposed enemies or foment hybrid wars, Cubans send medical brigades that save thousands of lives on all continents and become world references in terms of education, health, pharmaceutical and biochemical research.

In any case, soon Padura will have elements for another novel, always trying to understand the specificities of Cuba, the country he loves so much, and of which, without a doubt, nowadays, he is one of his greatest interpreters.

* Angela Carrato is a journalist and professor at the Department of Communication at UFMG.

Originally published on the website Viomundo.



Leonardo Padura. Como dust in the wind. Translation: Monica Stahel. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 544 pages..


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