Cuban writer Ivan Cardenas Maturell meets a mysterious foreigner on a Havana beach who is always in the company of two Russian wolfhounds. Ivan quickly names him ‘the man who loved dogs’. The man eventually confesses that he is actually Ramon Mercader, the man who killed Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, and that he is now living in a secret exile in Cuba after being released from jail in Mexico. Moving seamlessly between Ivan’s life in Cuba, Mercader’s early years in Spain and France, and Trotsky’s long years of exile, The Man Who Loved Dogs is Leonardo Padura’s most ambitious and brilliantly executed novel yet. It is the story of revolutions fought and betrayed, the ways in which men’s political convictions are continually tested and manipulated, and a powerful critique of the role of fear in consolidating political power.
I cannot thank Tom enough for his blog post which made it necessary for me to pick up this book. Likened to War and Peace, this hefty tome is certainly an epic, sweeping novel including plenty of misdirection, cruelty and fear which you experience rather than read.
Stories grounded in historical fact are, for me extremely compelling and because of the foregone conclusion all the more tragic. The path is already set and to see each decision leading to the terrible culmination of events is all the more calamitous as a result. The fascination of the story lies not just with the paths taken by certain individuals but the repercussions those outcomes have for the masses as well.
The diffusion of the plot over three characters works well and keeps the pace of the book flowing at an agile pace, each of the three journeys are formed by the machinations of politics, the notions of the ideological which is explored movingly and with plenty of depth. Padura spent 10 years exhaustively researching and it certainly shows in the little details that are so impressive and pull you into the story making it all the more absorbing to read. The beauty of it is that it isn’t at all difficult to get into the book, to become invested in the thoughts and feelings of the individuals, the difficulty comes in putting it down.
Historian Norman Davies believes 50 million Russian deaths can be attributed to Stalin between 1924-53 excluding war-time casualties, its to this backdrop the story is played out and left me in no doubt about the horror show that was Stalin’s regime and the atrocities committed. The constancy of the purges, repeated and drilled into the reader show the haphazard way of running the Soviet Union and also the destabilisation of the complex situation of the Spanish civil war which features a cameo appearance by George Orwell.
The reach of communism and the way Trotsky’s fate is left for so long, a huge beast toying with its prey is chilling, and helps to evoke a constant feeling of paranoia for each character. Yet despite the choices they make and how much you may disagree with them, its hard not to feel sympathy for their position because everybody affiliated with the communist movement is constantly exploited and discarded then left to deal with the consequences of their actions alone. It really is the proverbial elephant in the room.
Despite the subject matter, it’s not all grim and cheerless, within all the adversity and heartache there are moments of humanity that really shine through and seem so much stronger amidst the degradation of soul and character that is being constantly eroded. There is an air of the myopic running throughout each characters progress and that makes the book doubly painful and bitter to take in but also makes it an imperative read.
It appears to me that to believe in politics one must commit to something wholly – perhaps blindly – to the extent of justifying any action to achieve the aim; or lack the faculty to think critically about how they are achieving their goals. The dangers of propaganda in the media and the need to think critically are all the more important today with so many people shouting their opinions and beliefs, becoming indoctrinated is once again something to be apprehensive of.
The book does assume a prior knowledge of Trotsky’s life pre-1929, whom I wasn’t overly familiar with but a quick search for a timeline of his earlier life up to his exile will see you sorted for that. It’s worth doing so you can fully immerse yourself in the labyrinthine story, in all its brutality and hardship. I loved this book for its well written characters and the powerful message conveyed about freedom and the personal and social toll it can take when trying to achieve them.