A writer who had run afoul of Cuba’s guardians of propriety, Ivan Cardenas Maturell now plies his thwarted literary ambition as a proofreader for a veterinary magazine. It is the 1970s. Sufficiently intimidated and wishing to avoid more serious retribution, Cardenas pursues his meager living. In so doing he has picked up considerable knowledge about veterinary medicine and about dogs in particular. One day on a quiet beach he has a chance encounter with an older man accompanied by two striking borzois, also called Russian wolfhounds, rare in Cuba.
It is the beginning of a series of conversations with the ailing Jaime Lopez. Cardenas hears an astounding tale, a “dreadful story of hate, betrayal and death.” The depth of knowledge and emotional nuance expressed by Lopez moves Cardenas to suspect that his mysterious interlocutor may in fact be Ramon Mercader, the Stalinist agent who inveigled his way into the inner circle of exiled revolutionist Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known famously as Leon Trotsky. It was Mercader who drove an ice pick into Trotsky’s skull, mortally wounding the intrepid prophet of Permanent Revolution. Could Lopez be Mercader?
Author Leonardo Padura’s “The Man Who Loved Dogs” is a colossal work of historical fiction. Its sweep is comprised of a tripartite narrative intertwining the lives of Cardenas, Trotsky and his assassin. With Vladimir Lenin, a cofounder of the Bolshevik Party — which eventually became the Communist Party — Trotsky brought forth the Russian Revolution of 1917. His heroic stature and intellectual prowess aside, Trotsky underestimated the guile and viciousness of Josef Stalin, his chief opponent within the regime. After publicly denouncing Stalin as the “Gravedigger of the Revolution,” Trotsky’s power was gradually worn away. In 1929 he was expelled from the Soviet Union and branded a dangerous traitor.
The novel follows the peregrinations of Trotsky, who, despite periods of doubt and exhaustion, retains the hope of reclaiming the honor of the revolution and exposing the duplicity of Stalin. Trotsky reflects on what has transpired: “The proletarian dictatorship was meant to eliminate the exploiting classes, but should it also repress the workers? The dilemma had ended up being dramatic and Manichean: it was not possible to allow the expression of the people’s will, since this could reverse the process itself. But the abolition of that will would deprive the Bolshevik government of its basic legitimacy: once the moment arrived in which the masses ceased to believe, the need arose to make them believe by force. And so they applied force.”
He ponders the first time the iron fist of brutal party discipline was applied against internal dissent, in March 1921 during the Kronshtadt Rebellion. Kronshtadt was a fortified island in the Gulf of Finland occupied by militant sailors and workers who were staunch supporters of socialist revolution. But their demands for an extensive and diversified democracy ignited violent opposition from the Bolsheviks. Red Army Commissar Trotsky led the ruthless onslaught that eventually broke the resistance of Kronshtadt’s embattled occupants. With hindsight Trotsky regrets that it was there “the revolution had begun to devour its own children and he had been bestowed the sad honor of giving the order that started the banquet.”
Mercader is a young Republican soldier fighting the fascists in the ferocious Spanish Civil War, when one night he is called alone to a secret meeting. A little stray dog he named Churro pads along with him. At the appointed spot Mercader is confronted by his mother, Caridad, a fanatical Communist operative, “an androgynous being who reeked of deeply embedded nicotine and sweat, talked like a political commissar, and only thought about the party’s missions, about the party’s politics, about the party’s struggles.” She wants to know if her son would give up everything for the sake of revolution. He is puzzled by the interrogation, but she is persistent. Finally Mercader says yes, and Caridad is satisfied. His answer initiates the process of intense training and indoctrination that will transmogrify Mercader into a bloodless tool of Stalin’s revenge. Seconds before abruptly leaving their strained encounter, Caridad draws her pistol and shoots the dog dead.
A fascinating character in this story is Kotov, a brilliant polyglot agent who possesses a chameleon-like ability to assume many roles and identities. At once a world-weary cynic and consummate Stalinist, he spouts vitriolic hate for Trotsky, that subversive enemy of the people. Weaving in and out of Mercader’s journey into the murky world of spies, treachery, deceit and propaganda, the hard-drinking Kotov guides the young man like a masterful puppeteer. He demands unconditional obedience as Mercader is groomed in the tenebrous arts of intrigue and murder. He asks his protégé: “Are you ready to do something that could be the greatest glory for a Communist and the envy of millions of revolutionaries around the world?” Mercader is ready.
In an interview with the late Pulitzer Prize winner Oscar Hijuelos, Padura spoke of the ignorance in Cuba of Trotsky as well as the Stalinist terror: “When I was a student, even at the university, Trotsky was not mentioned. If he was, he was described as a philosophical revisionist and a political traitor, while all possible praise was showered on Stalin. There was never any mention of the true story of collectivization in 1929-32, or the several million people who died of hunger as a result of it; or of the cruelties of the gulags where millions more died; or of the Moscow trials, by which the Bolshevik guard was executed; or the military errors of World War Two; or the persecution of Jewish doctors; or the Prague trials.”
Hounded by the Stalinist left and the fascist right, Trotsky arrived in Mexico at the invitation of that country’s president. The exile had become fatalistic and expected that “Stalin would fix the moment of a death that would then arrive with the same certainty with which the snow falls in the Siberian winter.” In the course of his immersion in this saga, Cardenas realizes that utopias built on seas of blood and imposed by power-drunk true believers are a hellish fraud. He concludes: “I had learned that true human grandeur lay in the practice of kindness without conditions, in the capacity of giving to those who had nothing, but not what we have left over but rather a part of what little we have — giving until it hurts without practicing the deceitful philosophy of forcing others to accept our concepts of good and truth because (we believe) they’re the only possible ones and because, besides, they should be grateful for what we give them, even when they didn’t ask for it.”
With this impressive work, Leonardo Padura takes his place in the grand pantheon of distinguished Latin American authors.