The Man Who Loved Dogs centers on Trotsky, as Alvaro Enrigue eplains in this review for The New York Times.
If Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” turned the romance novel into literature, and Mario Vargas Llosa, with “Conversation in the Cathedral,” applied French 1950s nouveau roman techniques to the political thriller, the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, known for detective thrillers, has made his entrance to the Latin American Modernist canon by writing a Russian novel.
“The Man Who Loved Dogs,” published in Spanish in 2009 and now appearing in an English translation by Anna Kushner, tells the story of the exile of Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and the Soviet people’s commissar for foreign affairs, who was assassinated in Mexico on Aug. 20, 1940. Its Russian quality comes not only from its length — almost 600 pages — and the fact that it returns constantly to Moscow, but also from its Tolstoyan passion for historical trifles and Dostoyevskyan pleasure in examining the moral life of its characters.
In the summer of 1940, someone identified as a Belgian named Jacques Mornard infiltrated Trotsky’s inner circle and, during a visit to his house in Mexico City, sank an ice pick into Trotsky’s head. Despite having just had a hole punched in his skull and half of his brain perforated, Trotsky — a survivor of Siberia — knocked down, subdued and disarmed his assassin. And then he collapsed.
Mornard spent the next 20 years in a Mexican prison. In the 1950s, the Mexican police discovered his real identity: His name was Ramón Mercader. He was Spanish, and he’d been trained by the K.G.B.
Mercader’s story is worthy of the wildest espionage thrillers. He was transferred to Moscow from Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. Once there, he was transformed into an ideal Belgian. He was sent to Paris so he might seduce Trotsky’s confidante, the New Yorker Sylvia Ageloff. Then he was shipped off to New York, with a Canadian identity, and, from there, he established a phantom company in Mexico City, where he finally accomplished his task.
After serving his 20-year sentence, Mercader returned to a hero’s welcome in the Soviet Union. There he married the Mexican Stalinist who had been his link with the K.G.B. during his imprisonment, and he lived until his early 70s in a luxurious building overlooking Gorky Park. He spent his last years in Cuba, where he died in 1978.
“The Man Who Loved Dogs” recounts Mercader’s life in counterpoint to the cat-and-mouse game that Stalin played with Trotsky from the moment Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party in 1927 until his murder. And it was a cruel game: Even as his agents closed in for the dramatic ice pick checkmate, Stalin permitted himself the luxury of keeping Trotsky alive long enough to learn about the murders of most of his children and many other relatives.
In addition to the parallel stories of Mercader and Trotsky, “The Man Who Loved Dogs” has a third voice, a Cuban one. Iván Cárdenas is a frustrated writer whose life explodes when, in 1976, walking on the beach, he meets an exiled Spaniard who may be Ramón Mercader. Through him, Iván, once kept in the dark by the Cuban government’s policy of “programmed ignorance” for its citizens, learns about 20th-century history, reads Orwell and Trotsky and becomes aware of the horrors of the Stalinist era.
Mr. Padura’s novel tells this triple story without ever abandoning the general conventions of fiction. More concerned with the emotional life of its characters than with their historical roles, the novel still imparts a sense of reality, thanks to its deft handling of an astonishing quantity of information about Trotsky and Mercader’s lives. This doesn’t impair the book but it does make it a serious reading project: There is an almost courtroom rhythm to Mr. Padura’s storytelling, as if an urgent need to offer evidence had overwhelmed his ability simply to present the macabre dance between the victim and his assassin.
The three alternating stories resonate with one another, acquiring deeper meaning as they paint the complete fresco of a political paradigm’s downfall. Mr. Padura suggests that his three main characters, though playing very different roles, end up victims of the machinations of a system that discards them when they stop being useful. All three love dogs, and all three have endured claustrophobic restriction verging on imprisonment. Each concludes that his loyalty to Marxist ideas has transformed him into a ghost. And each, in his unhappiness, confesses and incriminates himself.
“Orwell’s futurist and imaginative fable ‘1984’ ended up turning into a starkly realistic novel,” Iván Cárdenas says. “And there we were, without knowing anything … Or is it that we didn’t want to know?” Trotsky accepts that “when blinded by the glitter of politics,” he was “incapable of understanding the difference between circumstantial and permanent” to the point of ignoring “the most human values.” As for his part, Mercader says, “I was a cynic,” he says, “a puppet, a wretch.”
In the context of a plot that revisits the grim mockery of Stalin’s show trials, these acts of compulsive self-incrimination are not only loaded with significance but are also — given that Mr. Padura is a Cuban author writing in Cuba — charged with an additional layer of meaning.
Fidel Castro’s most scandalous show trial was not mounted against a political figure but against a writer: Heberto Padilla. In 1971, after 38 days of detention, Mr. Padilla was forced to “confess” at the Cuban writers’ union to the charges of “subversive activities.” He had published a book of poems faintly critical of the regime.
I don’t know if all this self-incrimination is part of the novel because Mr. Padura wants to make the point that in Cuba, writing is an activity fraught with fear, or because it is the involuntary reflex of someone who has awaited the day of his own political trial. In any case, it stands as a clear register of the author’s circumstance: Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.
Ms. Kushner’s rendering of the novel in English brilliantly demonstrates her loyalty to the author’s voice. She nudges the English to give it a Cuban tone, respectful of the brutal efficiency of Mr. Padura’s Spanish, while never sacrificing the lyrical flourishes with which he occasionally bedazzles his readers.
THE MAN WHO LOVED DOGS
By Leonardo Padura
Translated by Anna Kushner
576 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $35.