The Man Who Loved Dogs
Leonardo Padura Fuentes
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
On August 20, 1940, Ramón Mercader, a Soviet secret agent originally from Spain, pierced Leon Trotsky's skull with an ice axe. Trotsky, one of the most important figures in the Bolshevik Revolution, had been driven into exile by his former comrade Josef Stalin 11 years earlier.
The novel The Man Who Loved Dogs (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), by the Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes, translated to English by Anna Kushner, traces the horribly intertwining fates of Trotsky and Mercader. Padura, Cuba's most famous crime writer and one of its most important intellectuals, is the perfect author to deliver this story. In The New Yorker last year, Jon Lee Anderson wrote that "for Cuba's intellectuals, and for its professional class, a new Padura book is as much a document as a novel, a way of understanding Cuban reality." Padura frames the narrative of Trotsky's assassination in the story of a Cuban writer, Iván, who meets the titular man who loved dogs, or Jaime López, on a Cuban beach in the '70s. López, who has two borzois, or Russian wolfhounds, eventually begins to tell Iván the story of Mercader and Trotsky's assassination. The news is revelatory to a Cuban living in the shadow of Stalinism, ignorant of every so-called enemy of the USSR, whose history of horrible truths has been whitewashed by the regimes of both Stalin and Castro.
López's narrative is epic, following Trotsky during every year of his exile. Through López's eyes we learn of the extraordinary perversions of Stalinism; with him, we are shocked as the Communist leadership is continually purged, the once-respected leaders made to sign papers confessing to crimes that no one could really believe they committed. Strangely, one derives so much pleasure from reading about the ruthless global chess game Stalin plays with his enemies and his own people-this, even as one watches news coverage of the Putin regime's invasion Ukraine or arrest of Pussy Riot. We see most of Stalin's tactics through the eyes of Trotsky, who is playing his own game with Stalin, almost as if they are both agents of history more than they are people. Trotsky remains an indefatigable Marxist, devoted wholeheartedly to revolution and the dream of utopia. Through this lens, we can see the tragic destruction of that dream.
Trotsky's assassin, Mercader, is also a loyal servant of communism, but he is taken by the machinery of the USSR and turned into a creature of hate, only devoted to following orders. The KGB trains him until his personality is a blank slate on which they can paint any character. Mercader transforms into Román Pavlovich, and then a bourgeois Belgian named Jacques Mornard, and eventually Frank Jacson, who goes on to kill Trotsky. He doesn't question any order, convinced he is acting as a hero of the cause, until he gets close to Trotsky and his final mission. Then he begins to question the accusations against his target-the allegations that he is in league with Hitler and only wants power. In this moment, we see the internal battle between loyalty, truth, and fear.
All of the main characters are motivated by Stalinist fear: Iván lives in the shadow of it, Mercader is completely controlled by it, and Trotsky is constantly pursued by it. Stalin isn't so much a character as the face of that fear. It's a global fear that drove, say, the people of Prague to speak in low voices for fear of being overheard-Jaime López calls it "the city of whispers." It's a fear so vast and unconquerable that Stalin seems to be around every corner, hearing all, ready at a moment's notice to betray his closest allies or even his own revolution with acts like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Stalin and Hitler, in which they divided up Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia, and which also promised a rapprochement between the powers. The assassination of Trotsky itself stands as a testament to Stalinist terror. And even as we see Mercader's growing cynicism and his burgeoning skepticism regarding Stalin's lies, nourished most powerfully by Stalin's betrayal of the Republican forces in Spain and their defeat by Franco, we see him ever deeper enmeshed in that terror, and yet, we know as well as he does, there is no going back.
The novel is huge, and the payoff for reading it is commensurable, but parts of it can get a bit too encyclopedic. The Man Who Loved Dogs doesn't really get going until around page 200, when Mercader is transported to Russia to become Soldier 13, a sort of Soviet Jason Bourne. As the true and horrible power of Stalinism becomes evident, the novel becomes a page-turner worthy of the author of Havana Red or Padura's other novels featuring Inspector Mario Conde.
Trotsky never comes alive as a character until, ironically, we are able to see him through the eyes of his assassin, who goes so far at one point as to sympathize with him. Mercader's sympathy for Trotsky is almost contagious. Padura does the very thing that totalitarian regimes despise-he honors individuals more than history and treats them as human. The reader can empathize with almost everyone except for Stalin, who never appears in the novel, though his presence dominates. Through his relentless psychological profiles, Padura harkens back to the pre-Stalinist Russian novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, elucidating each twist and turn in each character's consciousness.
Padura ultimately delivers a beautifully executed vision of the power of ideology and fear, and a painful narrative on the perversion of that ideology. The last legacy of Stalin is the fear that he leaves behind, the same fear that pursues the Cuban Iván into the 21st century. And yet Padura's ability, in contemporary Cuba, to bring to life the individuals dominated by this fear and to sympathize with them shows that Stalin did not win.