Books: ‘The Man Who Loved Dogs’

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Leon Trotsky testifies at July 1940 court tribunal in Mexico about May 24, 1940, Stalinist armed attack on his house. Standing at left, above Trotsky, is U.S. socialist Joseph Hansen.

 By LAZARO MONTEVERDE

 “The Man Who Loved Dogs,” by Leonardo Padura. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2014. Originally published in Spanish in 2009 as “El hombre que amaba a los perros.” Available in hardcover and paperback in both languages.

With the publication of “The Man Who Loved Dogs,” Cuban writer Leonardo Padura joins the ranks of outstanding Latin American writers that include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, and Roberto Bolaño. But this captivating work of historical fiction is much more. It is an important and timely political act that introduces Trotsky to Cuba and Latin America while at the same time exposing the crimes of Stalinism.

Padura, born in 1955 in Havana and educated at the University of Havana, is a novelist, essayist, and investigative reporter. His work has been recognized in both Cuba and the Spanish-speaking world. In 2012 he won Cuba’s National Prize in Literature and in 2015 he won the Princesa (formerly Principe) de Asturias Literary Prize, sometimes called the Latin American Nobel Prize.

The novel is told from the perspective of three narrators: Leon Trotsky, Ramón Mercader (the Soviet agent who assassinated Trotsky in Mexico), and Iván Cárdenas, a failed Cuban writer working in Havana at a veterinary magazine. The title of the novel is ambiguous: all three men loved dogs. Trotsky’s life is followed from his internal exile in Siberia by Stalin, through his external exile in Turkey, France, Norway, and finally Mexico. Mercader’s life is followed from his childhood in Barcelona through his participation in the Spanish Civil War to his training as a Soviet agent in Russia and his pursuit of Trotsky. Iván’s life is told, with flashbacks, from his meeting in 1977 with a “man who loved dogs” who may, or may not be, Trotsky’s assassin. As the novel progresses, the lives of the three narrators become connected in interesting and subtle ways. Sorry, no spoilers in this review!

Padura based his portrayal of Trotsky’s life on extensive historical research, including a careful reading of Trotsky’s published works during his exile and the three-volume biography by Isaac Deutscher. But Padura’s skill as a novelist brings Trotsky to life, and the reader feels great compassion for his tragic circumstances.

Much less is known of Mercader, but Padura makes up for this by careful use of the facts that are known along with an interesting novelistic technique—Mercader is placed at important historical events such as the Moscow show trials of 1937-38, where Stalin tried, after forcing confessions, the vast majority of the leadership of the 1917 revolution. By the end of the trials, Stalin had arrested and executed almost every important veteran leader of the 1917 revolution, three of the five Soviet marshals, and over two-thirds of the central committee. He also had arrested or shot several thousand officers of the Red Army, which Trotsky had founded and once led.

Iván is based on Padura’s experience and the experiences of his generation, a generation that grew up with the revolution, fought in Angola, and suffered through the special period of the 1990s. All three narrators are not merely narrators. They are also symbols: Trotsky, of the revolution betrayed; Mercader, of the crimes of Stalinism; Iván, of the Cuban people and their revolution. Ultimately, this novel is a triple tragedy, but one that also points the way to a better future.

Having read the novel in both Spanish and English, I can attest that the nearly flawless translation by Anna Kushner captures Padura’s voice beautifully and is itself a work of art.

Padura is best known in Latin America for his Mario Conde (the Count) novels, based on the police detective and later private investigator/book buyer Mario Conde. Each of the Conde novels is a wonderful work of detective fiction, a love poem to the Cuban people and culture, and a political expose. The novels (in their English translations) are “Havana Blue,” “Havana Gold,” “Havana Red,” “Havana Black,” “Adios Hemingway,” and “Havana Fever.”

The early novels were written during the special period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when aid disappeared and Cuba experienced the hardships caused by the U.S. economic blockade. These novels are especially interesting as they depict daily life during this time. Politically, each of these novels focuses on a different social problem. For instance, “Havana Blue” focuses on corruption in the Cuban Communist Party. “Havana Gold” focuses on illegal drugs in Cuba. Other novels focus on the persecution of homosexuals, the role of organized crime in pre-revolution Cuba, and the censorship of writers in Cuba.

“The Man Who Loved Dogs” was widely reviewed in the capitalist press at the time of its English-language publication. The Independent (Feb. 13, 2014) hailed it as a “monumental work.” The reviewer for The New York Times (Jan. 21, 2014) wrote that Padura “has made his entrance to the Latin American Modernist canon by writing a Russian novel.” The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 7, 2014) described the novel as “a rewarding read, despite its excesses.”

The Washington Post (March 27, 2014) describes Padura as “Cuba’s greatest living writer and one who is inching toward the pantheon occupied by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.” Perhaps the most lavish praise came from The Financial Times. Their reviewer (Jan. 31, 2014) described the book as “a stunning novel” and a “monumental, intricately structured work.”

Great works of literature are inherently ambiguous, and Padura’s novel is no exception. We all read these works with our own eyes. How could it be otherwise? Still, one can’t help noticing in these reviews an effort to both acknowledge a great work of literature while at the same time distorting its political content.

The Independent (Feb. 13, 2014) describes the novel as “a fictional survey of two equally ruthless revolutionaries, Trotsky and Stalin, of the mass murders and show trials, and of the trusting millions caught up in it.” The New York Times (Jan. 21, 2014) highlights the parts of the novel critical of Cuba and Cuba’s treatment of writers.

The Washington Post (March 27, 2014) views the novel as an attack on Fidel Castro “who is never mentioned by name, [but] his creation—the Cuban revolution—is rendered here as a crumbling tropical gulag.” And not to be outdone, The Financial Times (Jan. 31, 2014) described the novel as an “insightful exploration of the ways in which communism corrodes the human spirit and justified the most monstrous of crimes.”

These are old tricks: equating the crimes of Stalin and Stalinism with Trotsky or Lenin, distorting the historical record, and ignoring political and economic context. Trotsky did not kill millions, orchestrate show trials, or deceive and manipulate millions—that was the doing of Stalin and the degenerated bureaucracy that he represented. Castro did not starve the Cuban people during the special period—that was the doing of the United States and the U.S.-led embargo. In my reading, there is only one published review that accurately captured the political message of the novel: A long and historically detailed review published by In Defense of Marxism by Alan Woods (Jan. 14, 2014). No surprise there.

“The Man Who Loved Dogs” is many things: a carefully researched work of historical fiction, a gripping spy novel, and a complex work of detective fiction. Politically, the novel introduces Trotsky to Latin Americans, presents the crimes of Stalinism, and explores the relation between Stalinism and the Cuban revolution. And it is also, as Padura himself has said, a book “relevant to the moment we are living though.”