Veteran actor Jorge Perugorría was a smart choice to play detective Mario Conde – if only because Perugorría is 51 years old.
Conde is in his 30s, but the character is every bit a world-weary, middle-aged man. In one of the opening scenes of the new Netflix miniseries "Four Seasons in Havana," the furrows on Conde's forehead become fault lines as he checks off evidence in a murder case.
“We’re off to a good start,” he says sardonically. “Sex, drugs, violence.”
It could be any murder in any country. But Conde is Cuban – and in this episode the victim is supposedly a model young communist.
“She belonged to the right student groups,” Conde’s partner reports. “A good revolutionary.”
Conde is Cuba’s Philip Marlowe – a hardened and hard-drinking sleuth who’s as philosophical as he is forensic – and he's the hero of "Four Seasons in Havana," a joint production between Cuba and Tornasol Films in Spain that was shot in Havana.
“I think of it as a Cuban version of ‘The Wire,’ ” says Ruth Behar, a Cuban-born anthropologist at the University of Michigan.
Behar has streamed all four episodes of "Four Seasons in Havana," in Spanish with English subtitles. And for her the miniseries is a landmark in the new cultural exchange between the island and the U.S.
“It’s a way of stopping the exoticizing of Cuba," says Behar, who is in Miami doing Cuba-related research.
"It’s not a happy society necessarily. But people still seem to have tremendous passion for life – they’re not communist robots. And there’s a sense that everybody lives on the edge among the ruins of Havana.”
That’s not surprising since the miniseries is set in the 1990s – Cuba’s so-called Special Period. Those were the island’s frightening, post-Soviet years of financial collapse. They brought about not just economic crisis "but also moral crisis," says Cuban writer Leonardo Padura.
"Four Seasons in Havana" is adapted from Padura's internationally acclaimed Mario Conde novels, which he wrote in the 1990s. Havana at the time was ripe for noir crime fiction. Amid the suffering, felonies once considered rare in Cuba – murder, larceny, drugs – became more common. But Padura also created Conde as a maverick spokesman for the disillusionment Cubans began to feel for their communist revolution.
"My novels form part of a narrative of disenchantment," Padura told me by phone from his home in Havana’s Mantilla neighborhood.
“A lot of myths were crumbling, and Mario Conde was my witness to Cuba’s new reality.”
"We're left with no dreams," Conde remarks in one novel. "From womb to tomb [the revolution] decided our lives for us."
Unless Americans appreciate that late 20th-century upheaval, they really can’t understand early 21st-century Cuba – and today's more independent-minded Cubans.
“It’s a moment when a new generation of Cubans arrived," says Cuban playwright Jazz Vilá, who plays a lawyer in "Four Seasons." "They now had the challenge to think and do things and decide for themselves."
But that doesn’t mean Padura and his alter ego Conde are subversives. In fact, Padura – whose Conde novel "Paisaje de Otoño" ("Havana Black") won the prestigious Hammett Prize – has resisted colleagues’ calls to emigrate to the U.S.
“The first thing that strikes you about Leo is the great love he has for the country, for the city," says Cuban-born Nat Chediak, programming director at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and a friend of Padura's.
Chediak says Padura’s stories reflect his struggle with that love – the way Conde, a frustrated writer who listens to American rock music like Creedence Clearwater Revival, struggles in relationships with women.
“Conde's a beaten down man wandering Havana buying up the libraries of people who have left the island," says Chediak.
"He comes from someone who is writing with a broken heart. It could be the lost love of a woman, but certainly for a lost love of the country in which he was born.”
That’s a key merit of “Four Seasons in Havana.” Padura and the miniseries’ Spanish director, Félix Viscarret, reject the narrow ideological views of Cuba. Folks on the left may object to the dreary depiction of the Cuban Revolution; those on the right may complain about the humanized portrayal of Cuban police.
"Cuba," says Padura, "is neither the hell nor the paradise presented in their propaganda."
For Mario Conde, Cuba is a more complicated case. And so is he. Or as his boss tells him:
“I don’t like detectives who have existential issues, Conde.”
An American, English-language version of the miniseries – titled “Havana Quartet” – is in production for the U.S. cable network Starz. Playing Mario Conde: Antonio Banderas.
Padura, meanwhile, is finishing a new Conde novel, titled "La Transparencia del Tiempo" ("The Transparency of Time") – whose story ends as then U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro normalize relations in 2014.