The Man Who Loved Dogs is a translation of Leonardo Padura’s historical novel about the background to Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico City in 1940. It is a story of broad scope and shifting perspectives, ranging across the Russian Revolution, Trotsky’s exile, the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet show trials, and post-war Cuba. The tale begins with a funeral and ends with a funeral: both take place in Cuba and neither one is that of the assassin’s victim.
The first occurs against the background of the tropical Hurricane Ivan. Soon after this a chance encounter propels Ivan Maturell, a failing writer, into the maelstrom of twentieth century history. In 1977 he sees a man walking his dogs on the beach and, shadowing him (whether as protector or jailer is unclear), a tall black man who is to provide the key to the story.
From the outset we are presented with changes of time, place and point of view. The action moves quickly from the Caribbean to Trotsky’s exile and his snowbound odyssey by train to Alma-Ata. Another shift then takes us to the Civil War in Spain as with the fateful words, “Yes, tell him yes”, Ramon Mercader, a young Republican fighter, agrees to do the work of the revolution, whatever that may be. Three narratives subsequently unfold in parallel. Trotsky the wandering and unwanted revolutionary tries to find a country that will accept him, always followed by the shadow of his former comrade, Stalin. Ramon accepts his task and as a result loses everything: his name, his freedom and his faith. Ivan is pursued by the story because “it needed someone to write it” and in it he finds himself.
The themes of the book match its wide canvas. We are presented with the tragedy of history as lived by its instigators who become indistinguishable from its victims. Doubt coupled with overriding fear becomes the climate of both the century and of the novel. In a period when phrases like “attaining the moral condition of New Men” meant something the individual is dispensable. Although Trotsky is shown to feel some guilt for the effect his actions have on his children, when Ramon targets Sylvia Ageloff as a girlfriend he does so without scruple. The personal and the political are inseparably linked. Under pressure the truth buckles and duplicity is a useful expedient: as Ramon’s mother, Caridad, says, “even if it’s a lie, we’ll make it the truth”.
The book gathers pace and interest with the assumption of a new identity by Ramon. This transformation begins the magnetic pull towards Mexico City and the description of the mind of the premeditating assassin is compelling. Although he is given extensive psychological training, it fails to work. The most interesting character in the novel is his controller who is also a mentor and father figure. Unlike Ramon’s mother he appears under various aliases. Caridad and her erotic relationship with her son and his oedipal feelings for her are less convincing.
Caridad and Sylvia Ageloff were real persons. As the jacket proclaims the book to be “A Novel” the accuracy of the historical detail may be unimportant, although it’s intriguing to imagine the actress Sara Montiel really visiting the killer in prison. In the final pages Ramon declares “Jo soc un fantasma” and this is echoed by Ivan’s “I am also a ghost”. He himself then becomes a character and is displaced as narrator by his friend Dany.
Unsurprisingly, this long and formidable novel is not without faults. As a result of the book’s structure the narrative transitions are sometimes abrupt. For example, the riveting description of the killing is immediately followed by a digression on the story of Castro’s Cuba. This gives a rather spasmodic effect. Another minor blemish is that the American English translation at times yields up unwieldy metaphors, clichéd phrases, and anachronisms. Perhaps “up to speed” and “on the bench” were used in the 1930s but “strawberry marmalade” is a howler while “timber’ instead of “timbre” might charitably be regarded as a typo.
Overall, however, Padura’s achievement matches his ambition. He succeeds in balancing the interlinked stories and thereby providing a provocative commentary on twentieth century history. He does so while maintaining interest in a story which has current relevance in addition to a well-known conclusion.
Although dogs are associated with fidelity, the assassin’s controller says that “what has motivated us is not faith, as we told ourselves every day, but rather fear….We both know that there’s no forgiveness for us…”. The final word of the book, however, is “that cunning noun” compassion. Dany believes that Ramon does not merit it while Ivan “deserves it like all victims, like all the tragic creatures whose fates were decreed by forces greater than they were”. In a text of symbols, not least the ice axe and the hammer and sickle, the one that re-appears at the end is a ship-wrecked driftwood cross.
In spite of its flaws this is a monumental novel in the tradition of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones and is recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of our times.
Bitter Lemon Press/9781908524102/£20.00