If we mixed the usual romantic novel with Cèline’s Journey to the End of the Night, with historical fiction with a colonial aesthetic (more in the style of Brazilian soap operas than that of Marguerite Duras), with 19th century soap operas like Les Misérables , with the thriller rude and joking of Tarantino’s generation, with the political crime novel in the vein of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, with a little Galician-Caribbean magical realism Alejo Cunqueiro-Álvaro Carpentierwith everything noble and everything ignoble that the craft of writing stories can offer… If it were possible to write a novel with all that baggage, the result would have to resemble Hell (Planet), by Carmen Mola, the pseudonym with the one in which Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez and Antonio Santos Mercero have been signing their books since 2018.
What else is Hell? First of all, it is Carmen Mola’s second period novel after The beast and the first that takes the action out of Spain and takes it to another place, to Havana. In the 1860s, in a period of liberal revolts and police repression, two opposite characters cross paths on the streets of Madrid. His name is Mauro, he studies Medicine, he is poor, idealistic and handsome and he represents a Galician Jean Valjean. And she is his Fantine, her name is Leonor, she is an actress (more beautiful than good) and she doesn’t care about politics, but her path crosses Mauro’s by chance. On a day of riots, Leonor saves Mauro and Mauro saves Leonor and, along the way, the two become the enemies of a sinister policeman who is like Victor Hugo’s Javert. So the couple falls in love and separates when she escapes and then reunites without knowing it because the two flee to Cuba, each one on her side: she as the wife of convenience of a rich sugar businessman (which will take a while to know if it is better or worse than it seems). And he, like a cop who will become a slave on a plantation in which the Galician emigration of hunger shares hardships with the blacks and the Chinese.
The three authors of Carmen Mola are in Havana to present Hell. There is something paradoxical in the Cuban capital, which should have been the city of revolution and rupture in the 20th century but which has become the best possible setting to communicate with the 19th century, even if it is in the form of ruins and miserable tenements made of limestone. The walk with the authors of Hell begins in the noble part of Old Havana, but heads almost instinctively towards its former red light districts, the landscapes of some of its scenes. The place is amazing: a kind of Cádiz a thousand times expanded and devastated by poverty. The best historical architecture in Spain is in Havana and it is in ruins and, with it, many of its inhabitants. A man with a medal on his guayabera spontaneously introduces himself to the Spanish writers and says that he is the vice minister of Culture. At first it seems like it’s all a joke, but it may be serious.
“This It was a bright, wonderful and elegant city; On the other hand, the city we see now is decadent,” says Jorge Díaz. His portrait of Havana has its share of tinsel and refinements but, deep down, it is a political portrait more than anything else. In short, Hell It is a portrait of a brutally stratified society. At one end is the saccharocracy, the elite of slave and sugar millionaires; At the other end, his slaves appear. And in the middle, the liberal classes, a crack in the system that will allow, in fiction, Mauro and Leonor to meet again and turn their love into a fight for freedom.
«There were a series of characters, hustlers who came to Havana with nothing and prospered. For us there is a real character that we have as a reference, Pancho Marty. He was a Spaniard who settled in the port of Havana, took control of the fish that arrived, created a network of power and then moved into the slave trade. He became a multimillionaire and was one of the richest people in Havana. And the curious thing is that, despite not having any training and being quite uneducated, that man loved the theater. He bought the Villanueva Theater. At a time when “there was a lot of money in Cuba, that meant bringing opera companies from Europe to do the entire season… Just as they brought the best cloths and the best fabrics from France,” says Agustín Martínez.