Jose Latour, Man of Mystery — And Action

- February 15th, 2009


Here’s the link to a video conversation with Jose Latour on torontosun.com.

If Jose Latour was describing himself as a character in one of his best-selling thrillers, here’s what I think it might go like:

“The man who walked into the room was not big, but he radiated a quiet, alert power.

“Sleek and fit, he looked at least a decade younger than his 68 years.

“His English was quick, colloquial and almost accent-free. But when he switched to Spanish, his voice was elegant and tautly sensual, embracing his native language like a confident man dancing with his lover.

“He moved through the room like a shark, aware of everything around him and ready to strike instantly if necessary.

“Then he smiled and it was like a beacon lit on a stormy night.

“You knew he would — and could — carry a village on his back as far as he had to. And woe betide los mal hombres who tried to stop him.”

When I read this description to Jose Latour earlier this week, he laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

“No, no,” he said shaking his head. “Too flowery. Far too flowery — and not accurate.”

Our mutual friend, Debby de Grout, was laughing too. “It is accurate,” she said. Pause. “But too flowery.”

So I’m a failure as a copycat hard-boiled writer, but I’m fortunate to have had hours talking to one of the world’s great modern mystery novelists — in two languages.

His new book, Crime of Fashion, has just been published. Latour, who now lives in Toronto, has moved out of his familiar Cuban milieu of Havana and Miami to bring his criminal conniving north to Canada.

Here’s the link to a review of Crime of Fashion on torontosun.com.

It’s easy to gush over Jose Latour. Apart from his writing triumphs in his native Spanish and acquired English, Latour has led a life that could be right out of one of his own inventively plotted thrillers.

Born in Havana in 1940, Latour was a child of pre-revolutionary Cuba — a beautiful, vibrant, exciting, international and corrupt place and time.

The English language was always part of Latour’s life. From kindergarten to Grade 4, he attended an American school in Havana.

“When you’re so young, you absorb language like a sponge,” Latour said.

The young Jose was also receiving less formal lessons in English.


Hotel Nacional in the heart of Havana, 1958

His aunt, now 99 and living in Orlando, ran the beauty parlour and barber shop in Havana’s famed Hotel Nacional in the 1950s.

“Many American tourists would come in with (paperback) pocket books and leave them behind. The women read romances and the men read crime novels by Raymond Chander, Erle Stanley Gardner, authors like that. I would collect the crime novels from the barber shop and read them.”

As Latour was pursuing his interest in English through the late 1950s, he was also moving into the murky, dangerous world of underground political activism.

“Like many young Cubans, I was sick and tired of the dictatorship of (Gen. Fulgencio) Batista.”

In 1957, only a year after Fidel Castro had returned to Cuba from Mexico to launch his revolution with 81 followers (most of whom were killed or captured within weeks of their landing), Latour joined Castro’s 26th of July Movement. He was 17 years old.

“Luckily all I did was collect money and distribute propaganda. I was never asked to kill anyone or plant a bomb.”


Fidel Castro enters Havana, January 1959

When Castro seized power in early 1959, Latour was elated. He began working for the new government the following year at age 19.

Latour would work in the Cuban bureaucracy for the next 30 years as a financial analyst and translator (his English connection again) in various ministries.

But for Latour and many other ardent Fidelistas, the 1960s were a decade of disillusionment.

“Fidel Castro betrayed his promises,” Latour says now. “He promised to restore the 1940 constitution, free elections, a free press, an independent judiciary.


Fidel Castro in Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1959

“Many times before 1959 he denied he was a communist, then in 1962 he said he had always planned to turn Cuba into a communist country, but the people were not ready to hear it before.

“It was a dream that turned into a nightmare.”

Even with evidence mounting around him, it took Latour most of the ‘60s to come to his final disillusionment with the Revolution.

“When you join a revolutionary organization before the triumph is achieved, it’s a very deep (commitment). You don’t want to admit you were wrong.”

“But by 1968 it was clear that the system didn’t work at all, that it was based on the repression of people and the suppression of freedom.”

Politically disaffected but still working for the government, Latour started writing crime fiction in his spare time in 1977.

Through the 1980s he published three Spanish-language novels, all set in pre-revolutionary Havana. He became a best-selling author, not only in Cuba but throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

In 1990, Latour resigned his government position to become a fulltime writer.

In 1992, he was allowed to attend an international authors convention in the U.S. and that gave him much of his information for subsequent descriptions about the Miami area.

Then came the watershed year of 1995. Latour’s new novel was set, for the first time, in modern Cuba and was based on a real-life case of corruption in the ministry of the interior (state security) and the armed forces.

The unpublished manuscript struck a chord — and not a good one — with government censors.

“I was told, ‘Unless you write books in which the members of the interior ministry are paragons of human virtue, you will never again be published in Cuba.’”

The novel, The Fool, was declared counter-revolutionary and banned from publication. Latour was declared “an enemy of the people.”

So there is Jose Latour, a blacklisted counter-revolutionary in a repressive, authoritarian state, an enemy of the people in a society of informers and block captains, and an unemployed writer without any other means of support.

Oh, and he has a wife and two children.

It’s not so hard to be a rebel and outcast, a hero or desperado, when your only concern is yourself. When the lives of others hang in the balance it can be a different matter.

The easy route would have been for Latour to bow to the pressure and start writing state-approved, politically innocuous pap.

But Jose Latour is not a coward or a soft man. He kept a low profile and considered his options.

He decided to begin writing in English and seek a foreign publisher. Simple enough for someone who had been reading and writing English all his life, as Latour had.

“I thought I was fluent in English, but when I started writing in English, I was so disappointed,” Latour sighed. “I couldn’t write in English. I mixed my verb tenses, I couldn’t construct a sentence properly.”

But he kept at it. And kept at it.

“I did 32 revisions of the manuscript of Outcast (his first English novel) before I was satisfied with it. Now I think I can finish a novel, do a couple of revisions and that’s it.”

So it’s now early 1999. Latour has a finished manuscript written in English, he’s still an enemy of the people in Havana, and it seems unlikely an English-language publisher is going to walk through his front door.

Which is exactly what happened.


Johnny Temple, bass player of the NYC band
Girls Against Boys and founder of Akashic Books

An American musician named Johnny Temple, a friend of a friend of Latour, was visiting Havana to research Cuban music and Latour invited him to dinner.

“He asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was a novelist,” said Latour. “It turned out he had just started a small publishing house in Brooklyn.

“’It’s too bad I won’t be able to publish your book,’ he said. ‘We’re just starting and I can’t afford the cost of translation.’”

“Well, as a matter of fact,” Latour replied, “I’ve just finished the manuscript of a new book — in English.”

Temple took a diskette copy of the novel back to New York and a week later called Latour to say his company, Akashic Books, would publish Latour’s novel, Outcast.

“It was a stroke of luck,” Latour says now.

Above is an early edition of Outcast. Below is the current cover you will see on Canadian bookstore shelves

Outcast was acclaimed on its release in the U.S., was nominated for a prestigious Edgar mystery writing award, and was subsequently published in 10 countries.

It would be the first of five novels Latour has written so far in English.

Latour’s second career as an author was off to a good start, but the success of Outcast also brought trouble.

No longer a low-profile, disenfranchised, unpublishable author, Latour became the focus of state security scrutiny. He was followed, he was monitored, he was harassed.

“I was frightened, really frightened, about what would happen.”

He had to get out of Cuba. But not without his family.

That chance came in 2002 when Latour’s publisher in Spain wanted him to make a publicity tour. Latour insisted the invitation include his wife and children.

The publisher obliged, the Cuban government authorized the sponsored visit, and suddenly Latour and his family were on the verge of escape.

They left for the airport with one suitcase each. At airport security control, Latour and his children were passed through but a prickly official kept Latour’s wife back, grilling her until the flight to Spain was almost ready to depart.

With minutes to spare, her documents were stamped and she was allowed to rejoin her family on their flight to freedom.

Spain was never Latour’s intended final destination. He always had his sights set on Canada. After two years of preparation and paperwork, the Latour family immigrated to Canada in 2004.

The Latour family is happily settled in Toronto and Canada is now home, although Latour’s writing will continue to have a strong Cuban sensibility

The novel he’s currently working on — and expects to finish by the end of this year — covers Cuban history from the 1940s through the 1980s.

“It says a lot about Cuba’s development from one dictatorship to the next.”

Latour constantly monitors events in Cuba.

He sees no changes happening as long as Fidel and Raoul Castro are still alive, but worries that there will be a power struggle among various factions of the Cuban military when the Castros are gone.

“I just don’t want to see bloodshed.”

He believes an ultimate rapproachment with the United States is inevitable, but does not believe Cuba will become an economic or cultural “appendage” of the American goliath.

“Cubans have a very strong sense of nationality.”

Speaking of nationality, Latour doesn’t see a Great Canadian Novel in his future.

“I don’t think in my lifetime I will learn enough about Canada and the Canadian people to write credible novels in which Canadians are the main characters,” he said.

“I don’t feel confident enough to write about Canadians … I will inevitably keep writing either about Cubans or about foreigners interacting in Canada or the United States.”

But he’s brimming with confidence when it comes to adopting Canada as his new homeland.

I’m here in body and soul. I will go back to Cuba (after Castro) to visit, but I’m Canadian now. I will live in Canada, which is where my children live, which is where the future of my children is. That’s it.”

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