Mario Conde is facing down his sixtieth birthday. What does he have to show for his decades on the planet? A failing body, a slower mind, and a decrepit country, in which both the ideals and failures of the Cuban Revolution are being swept away in favor of a new and newly cosmopolitan worship of money. Rescue comes in the form of a new case: an old Marxist turned flamboyant practitioner of Santería appears on the scene to engage Conde to track down a stolen statue of the Virgen de Regla--a black Madonna.
Mr. Padura’s grandiose novel of social and magical realism, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner, is thick with discursive episodes, including chapters following a custodian of the Black Madonna in the late-13th century and onward. The patient reader will see all threads tied up in a finale that nonetheless leaves Mario wondering whether all he’s endured has been 'real or merely a reflection . . . a trick of time.'
... Padura, who seemingly never met a digression he didn’t like, devotes considerable space to Conde’s quotidian life. As a result, the pace of the novel is slow, but the characterization is acute. Conde is likable, and the Cuban setting is the real star of the novel, which will appeal to Padura’s many fans.
The story of the theft is a fairly straightforward matter, with the usual red herrings. What is of more interest to readers looking between the lines is Padura’s unforgiving portrait of the Cuba of 2014, a couple of years before Fidel Castro’s death, in which there are definite haves and have-nots, the latter of whom live in shantytowns and lack 'running water, sewers, electricity, or the ration books that guaranteed Cuban citizens minimum subsistence at subsidized prices.' In such appalling conditions, the loss of a religious statue should seem a small thing—though, of course, it’s not. An elegant blend of mystery and sociology by one of Cuba’s most accomplished writers.