Book review: The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonard Padura

Have your say

LEONARDO Padura has hitherto been known here as the author of crime novels – Havana Red, Havana Black, etc, through a range of colours. The Man Who Loved Dogs is also a crime novel, but on a vast, apocalyptic scale.

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonard Padura

Bitter Lemon Press, 576pp, £20

It is, as the publishers say on the cover, the story of the assassination of Leon Trotsky, but it is much more than that. It offers a picture of the terrible middle decades of the twentieth century and of the horrors let loose by the Bolshevik Revolution and its development – or, as Trotsky would have it, perversion – at the hands of Stalin. It is a hugely ambitious novel, and a gripping one. There are passages which are redundant, others that might, with advantage, have been shortened, but on the whole it measures up to its ambition.

There are three strands to the novel which begins in Cuba where Ivan, a failed writer, is burying his wife. There was a story he had told her and when she said he should have written it, he replied that fear kept him from doing so. It arose out of meetings on the beach years before with a man who used to walk there with his two Russians borzois. The man told him about a friend of his who had assassinated Trotsky, and Ivan began to wonder if it was his own story that the man who loved dogs was telling him.

The second strand is a lightly fictionalised biography of Trotsky from the day Stalin expelled him from the Soviet Union to the day he was murdered on Stalin’s orders. It recounts his struggle to maintain an opposition-in-exile to Stalin, whom he had always disliked but fatally underestimated. Trotsky is sympathetically portrayed. You can’t but admire his courage, intelligence and resilience – also his capacity for friendship and love for his family, even though both friends and families were compromised, endangered, punished or murdered because Trotsky obstinately fought to save, as he supposed, his version of the revolution.

The third strand is Spanish. A young man, Ramon Mercador, whose mother has become a fanatical Communist because of her contempt and hatred for her bourgeois husband, is serving in the Republican army in the early months of the civil war, when, thanks to his mother, he is recruited by Soviet intelligence for a special mission. Meanwhile the Spanish Communists, on the order of Moscow, are purging the Leftist allies on the Republican side; and, in doing so, losing the war. Ideological purity is more important.

Ramon is taken to the Soviet Union to be retrained and remodelled, given a new identity suitable for the task to which he has been assigned. The reader knows, of course, that Ramon has been picked to kill Trotsky when Stalin decides the time is ripe, and also that Ramon is the man Ivan met on the beach. Likewise, many of the horrors of the Soviet Union and of the show-trials Stalin staged to destroy the old Bolsheviks and potential rivals, accused of being Trotskyists in league with enemy powers will by now be familiar to readers here, perhaps less so to those in Cuba (though the Spanish original was published in Barcelona in 2009, not in Havana). Nevertheless, however familiar, they still horrify, and Padura’s picture of a society held together by fear is as vivid as it is chilling.

The novel is an indictment of Stalinism, but it is more than that – a picture of paradise endlessly betrayed and postponed. Late in the novel, when Ramon, having served 20 years in a Mexican prison, is allowed to return to Russia, he meets his old mentor, a man of many names, himself by now a veteran of the gulag. It is 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, and Brezhnev has just sent in the tanks in to crush “Socialism with a human face”. “It’s the beginning of the end,” his mentor says. “This is a sick body because Stalin invented everything that exists here, and Stalin’s only objective was that nobody should take power away from him. Yet at the same time what we call Stalinism was made possible by the ideology which taught that everything and anything was justified in the name of the Revolution which would lead to the perfect society in which all men should be equals.”

Some may think Padura too indulgent to Trotsky. On the one hand, it is hard not to admire his courage and endurance, his ability to hold to his belief in the cause he represented. On the other hand, almost the last word in the novel is given to the friend of Ivan who finally assembles the papers here published: “To hell with Trotsky with his obstinate fanaticism and his belief that personal tragedies don’t exist, only changes in social and superhuman stages. So what about people? Did any of them ever think about people?” – a question inevitably directed at Fidel Castro too. For ultimately this is a novel written against “ideology”, against revolutionary or messianic fantasies, and as Ivan comes to realize, against a political system, admired by half the world, which, nevertheless was “glued together only by fear”.