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 favour 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. This sets
Conde on a quest that spans twenty-first century Havana as well as the distant past, as he delves as far back
as the Crusades in an attempt to uncover the true provenance of the statue.
Through vignettes from the life of a Catalan peasant named Antoni Barral, who appears throughout history in
different guises—as a shepherd during the Spanish Civil War, as vassal to a feudal lord—we trace the
Madonna to present-day Cuba. With Barral serving as Conde’s alter ego, unstuck in time, and Conde serving
as the author’s, we are treated to a panorama of history, and reminded of the impossibility of ever remaining
on its sidelines, no matter how obscure we may think our places in the action.
Equal parts The Name of the Rose and The Maltese Falcon, The Transparency of Time cements Leonardo
Padura’s position as the preeminent literary crime writer of our time.
I read this not knowing it was book nine in a series. I had no problem reading and enjoying this book.
Padura’s detective, Mario Conde, is a former policeman, now making a living as an itinerant buyer and seller of books, scouting out old collections containing titles that have some monetary value. Conde also writes, though never to his own satisfaction. He also takes on the occasional bit of private investigation work.
The Transparency of Time looks to the past and the future with an equally critical and affectionate eye. Conde has been approached by a newly reappeared school friend, Bobby, now a dealer in art and antiques, whose home was stripped by his con man lover. Bobby is particularly concerned about the loss of a statue of the Virgin de Regla, a Black Madonna who is popular in Cuba. Bobby has recently been initiated into Santería, identifies his Madonna with Yemayá, the primary mother figure in Santería, and claims that she has cured him from a near-fatal cancer. Conde takes on the job—the terms Bobby offers are well above Conde’s usual pay rate—but Conde gradually finds himself wondering how accurate and how complete Bobby’s story actually is. This narrative is accompanied by another that moves back in time, imagining a history for Bobby’s Madonna.
The Transparency of Time is a novel that rewards on many levels. It fulfills reader expectations for the mystery genre, but is also character-driven, offers a Cuban’s view of contemporary Cuba, and has historical sweep folded in due to the missing Madonna.
Leonardo Padura Fuentes (born 1955) is a Cuban novelist and journalist. As of 2007, he is one of Cuba’s best known writers internationally. In English and some other languages, he is often referred to by the shorter form of his name, Leonardo Padura. He has written movie scripts, two books of short stories and a series of detective novels translated into 10 languages. In 2012, Fuentes was awarded the National Prize for Literature, Cuba’s national literary award and the most important award of its kind.