Some 1.5 million people have fled Cuba since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. But there was a time, not that long ago, when refugees flowed toward the Caribbean island.

(FSG)

In 1939, the ocean liner St. Louis left Hamburg, in Nazi Germany, bound for Havana — with more than 900 Jews on board. They hoped to enter Cuba en route to permanent places in the United States.

Corrupt and influenced by anti-Semitic public opinion, Cuban authorities of the time barred all but a handful of the St. Louis’s passengers. Of those turned away, none were admitted to the United States, some eventually found safe haven in Europe, and 254 died in the Holocaust.

This sequence of events, laden with irony as well as sorrow, opens the gorgeous, sweeping new novel from Cuba’s Leonardo Padura.

Heretics” is part history, part detective story, but its overarching theme is the tension between the limitless yearnings of the human spirit and the limitations of geography and politics. Padura, born in Cuba in 1955 and still a resident there, possesses intimate knowledge of the matter.

A free person, he writes, “acts, lives, and thinks according to his conscience.” By that definition, few territories in history have been governed by laws enabling most people to live freely most of the time. Hence, the desperate peregrinations of vessels like the St. Louis, or of the rickety rafts aboard which so many of Padura’s countrymen have escaped.

Across the centuries, in pre-World War II Cuba, in 17th-century Amsterdam and back in Cuba of the present day, Padura’s characters struggle and roam, seeking and occasionally finding refuges in which they may live according to the promptings of their own hearts.

Some of them, like the young son who waits in Havana for his parents to arrive on the St. Louis, only to be disappointed, are Jews, history’s quintessential heretics. Others, like a girl who suddenly vanishes from high school in communist Cuba, are simply unacceptably eccentric, according to the authorities. In their different ways, they experience the same agony — “forced to go through the world with two faces,” caught between submission and self-expression, pretending to believe what they don’t, or to be something they really aren’t.

Padura’s most brilliantly portrayed misfit is a young Jewish painter in Amsterdam, striving for greatness under the tutelage of Rembrandt — only to be driven into exile by doctrinaire rabbis who consider his work transgressive. This, too, is a powerful irony: religious intolerance by a group that owes its presence in the Netherlands to Dutch religious tolerance. Amsterdam could be a “New Jerusalem” only for those willing to toe a certain line.

Author Leonardo Padura. (Hector Garrido)

This implicit but clear parallel to the repressive turn taken by revolutionary Cuba is one of many in Padura’s book. His description of rabbis ransacking the young painter’s Amsterdam home for forbidden writings and drawings eerily recalls an infamous 1971 incident when Castro’s secret police burst into the dissident poet Heberto Padilla’s apartment, looking for his draft of a proscribed novel. They found it hidden behind a painting.

Padura’s liberty to publish literature that probably would have been banned as counterrevolutionary in Padilla’s time is itself a bit of a mystery. Suffice it to say that Cuba has changed, and that Padura himself has carefully avoided certain taboos, such as direct criticism of the Castro family. Like the Rembrandt of his novel, who maneuvers among Amsterdam’s political and financial powers for the sake of his art, Padura seems to have set his sights on transcending his island nation’s political system, rather than defying it. The case for “Heretics” — like the case for “The Man Who Loved Dogs” (2009), Padura’s historical novel about the Trotsky assassination — is that the fight for freedom requires not only confrontation but illumination, of the kind only literature can provide.

The uncertain fate of a priceless painting — made in Rembrandt’s studio, passed down through generations of Jews, then misplaced in Cuba as a consequence of the St. Louis incident — connects Padura’s multiple plotlines and supplies the book’s substantial, satisfying narrative tension.

Yet the novel’s true subject is humankind’s need, in all times, in all places, to “live in truth,” as the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel put it.

Under certain circumstances, whether in tolerant Amsterdam, communist Cuba or, for that matter, today’s turbulent United States, anyone can be a heretic — or become one. Some people, in fact, can’t help it. The question is what any of us is prepared to do about it.

Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.

Heretics

By Leonardo Padura

Translated from Spanish by Anna Kushner

FSG. 528 pp. $28