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Book review: The man who loved dogs
Cuban writer Leonardo Padura's masterful novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, is about the exile years of Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Roman Mercader. Acting on Stalin's orders, Mercader fatally attacked the co-leader, with Lenin, of the 1917 Russian Revolution, with an icepick, on 20 August 1940.
Padura succeeds in blending historical facts with character-driven fiction and brings narrative pace and a truthful feel to broad historical and political canvasses. The novel opens with a Cuban, Iván Cárdenas, recalling meeting a mysterious Spaniard, 'Jaime López', on the beach in the 1970s.
Cárdenas admires the strangers' dogs and they strike up an acquaintance. López claims he knew Trotsky's killer, Ramón Mercader. Cárdenas seeks out the Trotsky books from unofficial channels and begins to suspect that the man who loved dogs is actually Mercader.
Alongside Cárdenas' story - a disillusioned communist-activist, forced to work on a veterinary magazine after petty bureaucrats censored his fiction - Padura keeps up two other biographical strands, those of Mercader and Trotsky. We follow Ramón Mercader, brought up in a bourgeois but troubled household in Catalonia, as his fanatical mother introduces him to communist politics.
While fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, Mercader sees the Stalinist armed repression of the anarchists and Left, including the murder of the POUM leader, Andres Nin. Stalin feared a successful socialist revolution in Spain more than Franco's fascists, as it would have inspired renewed struggle for workers' democracy in Russia.
Stalinist apparatchiks pick out Mercader for a 'special task' and he is brought to Moscow for brutalising training by the GPU secret police. Mercader's mentor brings him to a session of the grotesque Moscow Trials where Old Bolsheviks were summarily tried and executed on trumped-up charges of 'counter-revolution'.
Stalin, representing a privileged bureaucracy that emerged as the result of isolation of the revolution under conditions of social and economic underdevelopment, used the 'purge trials' to consolidate his power.
Mercader takes on the identity of a Belgian, 'Jacques Mornard', and is despatched to Paris to seduce one of Trotsky's young followers, Sylvia Ageloff.
From there, Mercader is sent to New York, as a non-political businessman 'Jacson', and finally to Mexico City. He patiently infiltrates the fortified Trotsky household, in Coyoacan, to carry out his murderous task.
Padura describes Trotsky's deportation to Turkey after the defeat of the Left Opposition, and years of exile in France, Norway and Mexico.
We witness Trotsky's grief at the murder of most of his family and closest comrades by the Stalin regime. Padura sympathetically depicts Trotsky the person - courageous and unbowed yet with his own share of human frailties - and Trotsky the Marxist leader and thinker.
Following Trotsky's assassination, Mornard (Mercader) is imprisoned in Mexico. He returns to the Soviet Union and is decorated but hidden away during the supposed 'de-Stalinisation' period. Mercader spent his last years in Cuba, where he died in 1978.
At the end of the novel, Padura's modern-day Cuban characters are despondent. But the ideas of revolutionary socialism, represented by Trotsky so sympathetically in this book, when taken up by the working class, can defend the gains of the Cuban revolution, sweep away bureaucratic rule and inequalities, introduce workers' democracy and see-off capitalist counter-revolution.
The Man Who Loved Dogs deserves the widest possible readership.
In The Socialist 18 June 2014:
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