It is easy to forget today how seductive the idea of communism was for generations of intellectuals the world over. They were drawn to the idea of a utopia where everyone was equal although, unfortunately, in practice it often resulted in authoritarian regimes.
In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Cuban writer Leonardo Padura looks at these “corrupted utopias”, and at one of the most influential men behind communism. The book is about Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramón Mercader. We don’t know very much about Ramón Mercader, but Padura’s reconstruction of his story is very convincing.
There are three strands in this book, each following the three main characters: Trotsky, Ramón and Ivan, a failed Cuban writer who meets Ramón twenty years after the assassination of Trotsky. The book is ostensibly written by Ivan.
The book’s structure allows Padura to look at the ways in which people in power corrupt the idea of communism. In the Soviet Union, Stalin had put in place a regime of fear and repression; in the Spanish civil war, during which Ramón was recruited, Soviet agents were busy manipulating the Left for their own ends; and in Cuba, communism had resulted in deprivation and the stifling of talent.
Padura’s book follows Trotsky in his exile from the Soviet Union. Trotsky is being hounded by Stalin and knows that when Stalin no longer needs him for his propaganda purposes, he will have Trotsky killed. It is fascinating to see how the idealism of early communism morphed into a brutal dictatorship. Trotsky is haunted by the fact that his actions at the start of the Bolshevik regime had opened the door for someone like Stalin. “The proletarian dictatorship was meant to eliminate the exploiting classes, but should it also repress the workers?… [I]t was not possible to allow the expression of the people’s will since this would have reversed the process itself [ie, the dictatorship]. But the abolition of that will would deprive the Bolshevik government of its basic legitimacy: once the moment arrived when the masses ceased to believe, the need arose to make them believe by force.”
Meanwhile in Spain, Ramón, who is fighting against Franco, is being manipulated by his mother, Caridad (who has an agenda of her own) and Kirov, a Soviet spy who becomes his handler. Kirov puts Ramón through increasingly intensive training, breaking him down to reshape him (at one point, Kirov thinks of Ramón as “his creature”). Both men change their names constantly, and the author, by referring to them by their current names emphasizes their shape-shifting natures.
Ivan grows up in Cuba during the 1960s and 70s, at a time when Cubans were kept from knowing anything that would destroy their faith in the Revolution, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Similarly, any creativity that challenged the Revolution was discouraged. The short story Ivan submits to his university magazine is branded “almost counter-revolutionary” by the magazine’s director. And this is the insidious way in which fear can shape people: Ivan leaves the director’s office feeling fearful and confused but, most of all, grateful that no measures would be taken against him and determined to prove that he is worthy of the regime’s trust. But Ivan stops writing, and it is not until he meets “the man who loved dogs” that he thinks of picking up his pen again.
The man whom Ivan meets is, of course, Ramón. Ivan sees him walking on the beach in Havana and is fascinated by his two Borzois (as the title indicates, dogs—especially Borzois or Russian wolfhounds—form a common thread through the book: Trotsky is also fond of dogs). The two men get talking, and Ramón starts to confide in Ivan.
This is a complex book, not an easy read but well worth the effort. I loved the way Padura structures the book, with the action moving back and forth between the three stories. He plays with time: as Ramón gets closer to Trotsky, the timing of the chapters is a bit off. For example, you see Trotsky watering his plants for the last time, but the following chapter on Ramón takes place the day before. It is a little disconcerting but when the two timelines come together with Ramón assassinating Trotsky, it feels like a collision.
Every single one of the book’s characters comes alive. But Trotsky, most of all, jumps off the page as a larger-than-life character (as I suspect he was in reality). Like all people with a big idea, he is unable to see how his single-mindedness affects those around him, even though he knows that he and his family are in danger. This book is a dissection of the corrupting influence of politics. All the characters are affected, directly or indirectly, by Stalin’s campaign against Trotsky.
There are a few things that jar in the translation, like “gave an ear” instead of “lent an ear”, “two times” instead of “twice” and “could care less” instead of “couldn’t care less”. All of these detract from an otherwise excellent translation and could have been picked up by an editor.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this intricately plotted book and would recommend it without hesitation.