Accidental Critic: Grab a Snake by the Tail


Grab a Snake by the Tail
by Leonardo Paduro
Translated by Peter Bush
Bitter Lemon Press, 2019

Reviewed by Kim Kishbaugh

I’m a bit of a sucker for mysteries and police procedurals. Doesn’t matter in what format: novel, short story, film or television, audiobook. So when I saw this one in the world literature browsing area of my local library, I snapped it up, thinking, “If it’s good enough to be translated and imported into the United States as world lit, I’m definitely willing to give it a try.”

Grab a Snake by the Tail turned out to be a somewhat strange but interesting read. Set in Havana’s Chinatown district, known as Barrio Chino, it transports the reader into a dark and seedy world, but one rich in humanity. Think of it as Cuban noir mixed with Chinese culture, and you’ll not be far off. Our police protagonist is Lt. Mario Conde, who seems motivated equally in life by booze, sex, and friendship, and in his work by some mixture of laziness, obligation, and respect for justice. He’s asked by a friend—an alluring female police officer—to investigate the murder of Pedro Cuang, a Chinese-Cuban man, or chino, who was found hung along with his dog in a shabby Barrio Chino apartment, one of his fingers removed and a mysterious symbol carved into his chest.

The investigation that unfolds is interesting and twisting, easily engaging, and pushes the reader through this very short novel. But while written in present tense, the story is actually in the past. So it’s wrapped in an outer skin of memory, and the narrative goes back and forth in time in a kind of stream-of-consciousness meander that can be a bit confusing. It demands your attention as a reader, and I liked that. It made me pay attention.

As with any good noir investigator, Conde’s flaws are apparent. He’s gluttonous, drinks too much, passes out, masturbates, womanizes, and is world- and job-weary enough to advise a young police recruit to consider setting aside his career aspirations in favor of becoming a mixologist. But Conde’s also a kind and loyal friend, with a sense of duty and a soft heart. You might struggle to like him unequivocally, but his love and empathy for others grabbed me and kept me caring about both them and him.

If you like mysteries, or if you like to be transported to an unfamiliar culture, this is a book worth reading. I’ve not been to Cuba, and I suspect Barrio Chino isn’t on most tour itineraries—certainly not the Barrio Chino we see in Grab a Snake by the Tail, dingy and filled with sadness and poverty. But I also got a sense of rich cultural history in Havana’s Chinatown, and I’d like to learn more about it.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is a quick and light read, only 156 pages in paperback. But a word of advice: you might not want to read it while you’re hungry. Conde’s chino friend Juan Chion is quite the chef, and the number of exotic dishes described here is not insignificant. You might find yourself driven to your kitchen or your favorite Chinese restaurant, your taste buds watering.

Grab a Snake by the Tail: Bitter Lemon Press

LaHabana.com: Barrio Chino

Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.