Padura, Leonardo. “Heretics: A Novel”, translated by Anna Kushner, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017.
Art Theft, Anti-Semitism, Cuba and Crime
In 1939, the Saint Louis sailed from Hamburg into the port of Havana with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. Docks. Nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watched as the passengers (including his mother, father, and sister) became embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. The Kaminskys had a treasure that they hoped would save them: a small Rembrandt portrait of Christ. However, six days later the vessel was forced to leave the harbor with the family, and this time the Saint Louis was bound Europe and the horrors there. The Kaminskys, along with their priceless heirloom, disappeared.
Almost seventy years later, the Rembrandt reappeared in an auction house in London and this caused Daniel’s son to travel to Cuba to track down the story of his family’s lost masterpiece. He hired private detective Mario Conde, and together they navigated a web of deception and violence in Havana.
“Heretics” brings Jewish, Cuban, Dutch, and Polish history together. Young Daniel Kaminsky, had been sent to Havana ahead of his parents and sister from Germany, and stayed with his uncle, a master leather worker. His family, however, was sent back to Europe and died in the Holocaust. Using the small Rembrandt to bargain with did not work and the painting stayed in Havana as the ship returned to Europe and was later found for sale in a London auction house. Daniel Kaminsky who had grown up in Havana had ditched his religious beliefs, converted to Catholicism, and married a Catholic woman. Later they moved to Miami, where they had a son, Elias who became a painter and as he grew older, he wondered about his parents’ past in Havana and, curiously, about the lost Rembrandt. During a visit to Cuba in 20067, he contacted Mario Conde, a retired policeman to help him find out what happened to the painting. Mario Conde, has his own story.
The story moves back and forth between Cuba and Holland, between the 1600’s of Rembrandt and the 20th century. The book’s title, “Heretics” describes several characters. Author Leonard Padura brings the history of Jews in Cuba, Florida, Poland and the Netherlands together through a fascinating story of lost art.
The first forty pages are a difficult and heartbreaking read as they relate Daniel Kaminsky’s optimism. He was waiting in Havana to be reunited with his family who were aboard the Saint Louis hoping to escape the anti-Semitism and Nazism that was rapidly spreading in Europe. Along with nearly a thousand Jewish passengers, they wait in Havana harbor for days before the decision ( which was undercut by corruption and politics) was made to turn them away, first to the U.S., where they are turned away for a second time, and finally back to Europe. When Daniel learned this, he decided that he would no longer be a Jew. He becomes one of the many heretics in the novel. In the rest of the 400 page novel, we look at questions of free will and the condition of being Jewish.
Elias Kaminsky decided to solve the mystery of the painting that is believed to be Jesus depicted as a Sephardic Jew and had been missing for seventy years. It was now up for auction with a price tag of over a million dollars.
Conde, the private eye, is a man who has seen everything, read everything, and still understands nothing. He takes us through the moral and formal complexities of this long, complicated story. The plot contains several generations of the Kaminsky family, a history of Jewish persecution, mysticism and fanaticism, a portrait of Rembrandt in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, an investigation into the power of art, a nostalgic picture of 1950s Havana and its Jewish population, and a new Cuba full of people who believe in nothing.
Padura gives us wonderful characters of painters, messiahs, punks, and detectives, heretics in their own ways, as they against the limits of the lives, traditions, religions, and revolution. As they search for meaning in their lives, so do we.