Bitter Lemon Press, 2014, 576 pages, $27.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Leon Trotsky refused to let paranoia about his all-but-inevitable assassination cramp his political life in his Mexican refuge, even receiving Jacques Mornard, the suspicious Belgian businessman and partner of a trusted New York Trotskyist bearing his poorly-written political article in one hand and a mountaineer’s ice-pick concealed beneath his coat in the other.
In The Man Who Loved Dogs, the Cuban novelist, Leonardo Padura, artistically reconstructs Trotsky’s assassination by the Spanish Communist, Ramón Mercader, who infiltrated Trotsky’s compound in that disguise and committed the murder on one terrible August day in 1940.
Mercader, a heroic communist fighting Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War, had been tapped for darker deeds against the non-Communist left by the Stalin’s secret police. Stalin, the ‘gravedigger of the revolution’ as Trotsky called him, feared his sole remaining Old Bolshevik rival who was the Marxist symbol of opposition to the “bureaucratic minority protecting its material interests” in Soviet Russia through brutal purges, farcical show trials and other “horrifying crimes against humanity, dignity and intelligence”.
After killing Trotsky, Mercader served twenty years in jail before returning to Moscow to a mixed reception as a Hero of the Soviet Union but also “one of the more annoying proofs of Stalinism” for a neo-Stalinist regime modernising its tools of repression. A terminally-ill Mercader spent his last years in Cuba.
In Padura’s novel, Mercader, now remorsefully realising that he was the “puppet of a dark and miserable plan” based on cynical lies told by Stalin about Trotsky, feels compelled to tell his story which he does to Iván Cárdenas, a once-promising but now disgraced Cuban writer. Cárdenas sits on the sensational story fearing “complications of all kinds” from writing about contraband history - in Cuba, there was “programmed ignorance” about Trotsky because of Cuba’s economic dependence on the Soviet Union.
With the downfall of Mercader’s Soviet world, however, Cárdenas picks up his pen again only to discover, against all his instincts, some compassion for Mercader as a victim of Stalin, summonsing Trotsky as witness to “the degree of perversion that Stalin’s influence had injected into the souls of men”, including once-idealistic communists who instead entered history as reviled murderers.
Mercader, however, may be just a grotesque extreme of an inevitable corruption of the socialist utopia, suggests Padura. He has Trotsky, the iconic anti-Stalinist revolutionary, ruminate guiltily on how much responsibility he shares for Stalinist despotism, for the “excesses he himself had committed in order to defend the revolution” when, under desperate duress, Trotsky (and Lenin) forcefully ate away at democracy in the working class and the Bolshevik Party.
Are all great utopian dreams condemned to failure, ponders Cárdenas, with the authentic biographical ring of Padura himself. Padura’s fictional alter-ego had, in his youth, cut sugarcane with “militant enthusiasm and invincible faith” in the Cuban revolution but after living through years of “sexual, religious, ideological and cultural intransigence”, and the material poverty of the post-Soviet, pre-Venezuelan 1990s, has now drifted into “skepticism and sadness”.
“My capacity to believe had been ruined forever”, laments Cárdenas, reflecting on “the great disenchantment” of failed communist dreams in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and elsewhere, all doomed by Stalin’s toxic legacy.
Despite his loss of faith, however, Padura has not left Cuba where official cultural caution (The Man Who Loved Dogs was initially given only a limited distribution) is buffeted by the winds of political change. Padura has recently won a national literary prize even as his detective novels, on which his international fame is based, continue to tackle government corruption and social inequality.
In his finely-wrought, if overly-long, novel, Padura’s political pessimism vies with his admiration for Trotsky, imperfect and capable of error but whose revolutionary spirit survived the assassin’s ice-pick and continues to challenge the jaded cynicism of the corrupted and disillusioned.