The Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner. Bitter Lemon Press, 2014, 592 pages, £20.00 (hardback).
Putting real-life characters into a novel is a high-risk enterprise. Padura, a Cuban writer of acclaimed crime noir thrillers, weaves together the experiences of Leon Trotsky in exile, his eventual assassin, Ramon Mercader, and the Cuban narrator, Ivan Cardenas who meets an exiled Spaniard (who may or may not be Mercader) walking on a Cuban beach in 1976. The three protagonists share two features. The first is a love of dogs, particularly Russian borzoi wolfhounds, and each of their lives is dominated by the evil machinations of Stalin. And so the story begins.
Leon Davidovich Trotsky, who, with Lenin, led the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, founded the Red Army and was the Soviet People’s commissar for foreign affairs, ruthlessly suppressed opposition – from the left and the right. Eventually, underestimating Stalin after the death of Lenin, Trotsky was sent to Siberia, subsequently exiled and then was used as a pawn in Stalin’s bid for and concentration of complete totalitarian power in his own hands.
Stalin personally selected Trotsky’s assassin, Ramon Mercader, a Spanish communist who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Having agreed to perform a historic life- changing task for Stalin and world communism (without knowing the detail of the “great act” he was to perform), he was summoned to Moscow for training as an assassin. He was transformed into a Belgian businessman and then sent to Paris to seduce one of Trotsky’s confidantes, the American Sylvia Ageloff. Through her he eventually got to Trotsky and killed him with an ice pick in Mexico on 20 August 1940.
Having spent 20 years in prison in Mexico, where his true identity was eventually discovered, Mercader then spent a year in Cuba and returned to a hero’s welcome in the Soviet Union. In Moscow he married the Mexican Stalinist who had been his link with the KGB during his prison term, living there in a building overlooking Gorky Park, and spending his last years in Cuba where he died in 1978.
The narrator, Cardenas (a frustrated writer who ran foul of the Cuban regime for “non-approved” writing) provides a brilliant device to show the highly negative impact of Stalinism on world communism, with uniformity a priority, principles an early casualty, and history successfully rewritten to erase Trotsky and deify Stalin.
The author achieves an extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal of Trotsky and eventually of his assassin, showing their separate but deep realisation of the terrible cost of their actions both to themselves, their families, and the cause of equality for all, to which they had devoted their lives.
Stalin’s deadly cat and mouse game with Trotsky enables the author to display a disturbing and very different view of the Spanish Civil War, and of many of the events leading up to and the start of World War 11. In this reading, Trotsky was the helpfully absent villain in the Moscow Show Trials, the “justification” that enabled Stalin to remove all the old Bolsheviks at the top of the party, and huge numbers at the top of the Red Army. Thus Stalin, removed all possible opposition to him, and in the process pressurised many defendants to “confess” to hugely improbable crimes, and more helpfully to take responsibility for all the major mistakes in the Soviet Union since Stalin took power. When this process was completed, and only then, had time arrived for the perfect pawn, Trotsky, to be eliminated.
The only downside to this successful grand plan was the near-fatal weakening of the Red Army, of which Hitler took full advantage when he invaded the Soviet Union.
Originally published in Spanish in 2009,this work has been skilfully translated, giving very human, and atmospheric perspectives on the Spanish Civil War, Stalin and his works, and Trotsky himself. Brilliantly interwoven are key events leading up to World War 1l, the division of Poland and much of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states between Stalin and Hitler, and the supine reaction of the German left to the rise of Nazism, through to the rise and eventual fall of Soviet communism in the 1990s.
This high wire literary excursion makes for absorbing reading for those interested in these great events, in historical fiction, or in a Russian-style grand crime epic, and especially those who simply wish to better understand much of modern European history.