by Gwen Ansell.
Leonardo Padura is perhaps best known outside his native Cuba for his series of prize-winning, Havana-set detective novels, The Four Seasons, featuring the maverick cop and aspiring writer Lieutenant Mario Conde. The weightier and more ambitious Man Who Loved Dogs – it took Padura, he says, more than five years to write – also features an aspiring writer and a feat of detection, but on a much more epic scale.
The book braids together the stories of not one, but three men who loved dogs: two real historical figures, exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramón Mercader, and the fictional and symbolic character of a struggling Cuban writer, Ivan Cardenas. Cardenas – driven by censorship from a creative writing career to drudge as editor of a veterinary journal – meets a Spaniard, Jaime Lopez, on the beach walking two borzoi wolfhounds. A kind of friendship grows, and Lopez eventually confesses that he was Mercader’s confidant. But as Cardenas patches together scraps of information about Trotsky’s murder, another possibility emerges: that the man is Mercader himself.
That’s not the real mystery, however. It is the plot device around which Padura packs the technicalities of detection, but it’s no spoiler to say that by about halfway through the 600 pages, the reader is fairly certain of the answer. Not totally certain – Padura is far too good a detective story writer for that – but certain enough to focus simultaneously on another conundrum far more important to the narrative: how did the repressive, dogmatic vanguardism of the Stalin period come about? How do revolutions get betrayed? How can good people with noble intentions forget where their struggle started?
The story is a gripping one because of the meticulous way in which each man’s life is used as a reflection – sometimes distorted, sometimes precise – of the other’s. Each starts with questions about the grotesque social relations of capitalism. Each discovers answers in socialism. Each has doubts or questions, has them crushed or ridiculed, experiences exile. In Trotsky’s case, he is alert enough to spot, and even predict, the personal, emotional and political strings the Soviet regime is manipulating. For Mercader, the process of disconnecting him from his Spanish Civil War comrades is presented to him as a privilege, not an exile, even as the GPU is using his disorientation and isolation in Moscow to turn him into a pliant tool.
Along the way, there are vivid, convincing vignettes: of the internecine conflicts within the progressive forces in Spain; of Moscow during the purges and later during the disillusionment of 1968; of fishing trips and picnics in Turkey; of Mexico City. Padura’s meticulous research and Kushner’s truly wonderful translation into English, which can convey the cadence of Spanish or Russian without any baroque embellishment, bring the people and places of the era alive.
The book leaves little doubt that Trotsky is the hero and Stalin the villain of the piece. At one point, Trotsky muses about whether, if he had retained power, he would not also have become dictatorial, but disappointingly, this line of thought is not sustained. And yet given what we know of Trotsky’s role in re-shaping the Red Army, that question does not exist only in the realm of “what if”. The priggish young intellectual of the 1920s certainly ordered the Cheka to shoot Makhnovists and deserters. He urged harsh military punishments for soldiers caught in the comparatively minor act of swearing. Even workers speaking ungrammatically attracted his censure: “To preserve the greatness of the language, all faulty words and expressions must be weeded out of daily speech. Speech is also in need of hygiene,” he argued in The Struggle for Cultured Speech in 1923. Like Stalin, he was also certain he knew best.
The issue of vanguardism is not placed under the spotlight in Padura’s work. Rather, by putting much of the account of the Soviet regime’s machinations into Trotsky’s fictional words, Padura creates the strong impression that one evil genius, Stalin, designed every cruelty inflicted on dissidents. That’s not what Trotsky himself suggests in The Revolution Betrayed, where the rise of an entitled bureaucratic elite is seen as the engine of degeneration.
A counterbalance is found in Cardenas’s more distanced voice. The disillusioned writer is far away in Cuba, and – unlike the other two protagonists – not inside the circles of power. He hopes that Stalin’s death will end the decline of socialism. Instead, he finds that everything remains “rotten”. The dreams of the revolution, it is implied, were never realisable.
The rebuttal is thus one of cynicism, rather than hope. While Padura evokes pain, suffering, betrayal and manipulation brilliantly, he is never as vivid when he explains how his characters came to socialism in the first place. Often that discovery is portrayed as individual rebellion among people whose lives already have the luxury of choice: Mercader’s mother, for example, finds socialism through rough sex and heroin addiction, disillusioned with a sterile haut bourgeois marriage. Yet to see the importance of the question “how can a revolution be betrayed?” we need to see equally clearly the hope and joy in which revolutions begin for the communities of the formerly choiceless and voiceless. Such characters are thin on the ground in this book, despite its theme.
I found the pessimism of the book’s conclusions saddening. In both the Soviet Union and Cuba, the revolutions brought massive gains for poor and working people. The gains were eroded by bureaucratic dictatorship – red tape that contributes to the death of Cardenas’s beloved wife – but they did not disappear completely until the last remnants of socialism were strangled by the Friedmanites in Russia, and the market began to be liberalised in Cuba. Countless ordinary people lived, ate, worked and stayed healthy over generations, who could not have done so if the revolutions had not happened – and who are not doing so today, either in the capitalist West or in the former socialist states. I’m unconvinced that the freedom not to die from hunger and want is any less important than the freedom not to be shot for your opinions. A genuinely better society facilitates both. Those gains do not excuse or excise from the record the murder, torture, disastrous economic policy whims or any of the rest of the mess Padura documents – but they are also a relevant part of the history.
That does not make The Man Who Loved Dogs any less worth reading. It is a brilliant, thought-provoking book, constructed with a watchmaker’s precision and a poet’s heart. And Trotsky would certainly have approved, and probably been less disturbed than me by the pessimism. “[A] protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work,” he wrote in 1938.
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