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The Man Who Loved Dogs – Leonardo Padura

18 Jun

T' Man oo Loved DoggiesCuban 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.

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33 Comments

Posted by on 18/06/2015 in Fiction, History, Politics

 

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33 responses to “The Man Who Loved Dogs – Leonardo Padura

  1. Letizia

    18/06/2015 at 21:19

    I’m looking forward to reading this book which is on my ‘to be read’ list. A wonderful review which I will return to once I have read the book. I can’t wait to visit Trotsky’s house in Mexico City when I go.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • Ste J

      18/06/2015 at 21:32

      I envy your trip all the more now I have read the book, you’re in for a real treat and with that added experience of being so close to the locations will add another layer…I’m now more jealous of you than I was when I started writing this reply.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Letizia

        18/06/2015 at 21:52

        I like that your jealousy grew exponentially as you were writing the reply.

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  2. Bumba

    19/06/2015 at 03:15

    Sounds like a terrific book. I’ll give it a look.

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    • Ste J

      19/06/2015 at 19:45

      Good man! It has plenty to keep you entertained and it will make a fascinating compare and contrast with other books written on Trotsky.

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  3. Tom Gething

    19/06/2015 at 04:19

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it. There’s always an anxious moment when someone picks up a book based on your recommendation. 🙂

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    • Ste J

      19/06/2015 at 19:47

      I constantly worry that I have oversold the books I like, so I know that feeling but when you trust a fellow reviewer, the choose to take a punt on such a big book is an easy one. I was actually impressed that our backward bookshop actually had it.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Jeff

        19/06/2015 at 21:03

        Which all goes to show – better a backward bookshop than no bookshop. Smaller outlets can surprise. I’ve noticed them having a penchant for those large Pimlico biographies. Just did a search though, and they don’t seem to have published anything on Trotsky. Robert Service’s biography turns up in charity shops from time to time.

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        • Ste J

          21/06/2015 at 15:18

          I meant Waterstones a a backward bookshop, mainly because I always expect it to have the books that are not only newer but more obscure to hand, it is a dream sadly eroded of late. I find less to buy in there than I would in any independent or second hand bookshop. I’ve never come across a Pimlico authobiography, I feel I’m missing out now.

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          • Jeff

            24/06/2015 at 20:01

            Waterstones is very much the promotional outlet for the book industry as a whole, which can make it, like any behemoth, a bogeyman. I guess I’ll be in there again once I’ve got a bit of budget on my side. There’s a book by a French author that I forgot to make a note of, and I can’t recall which blog the review was on either. Apart from that, I’ve no new book list because it’s pointless until I can realistically afford new books! Those are the ones that have become my eroded dream.
            Pimlico also publish history titles btw.

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            • Ste J

              25/06/2015 at 09:33

              I tend to add all books to my list, safe in the knowledge that by the time I get around to buying them they will probably be cheaper anyway. Waterstones is a bugbear for me, it needs to decide whether it wants to be a WH Smiths or a bookshop for people who want the more obscure and literary, by sitting on the fence it just gets the hopes of people like me up to mostly disappoint despite the promise its shelves hold.

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              • Jeff

                25/06/2015 at 10:27

                It can be a confusing place. The thing I find weird is the way it competes with online by using events. This is so often a book signing by someone that nobody’s heard of who’s written about something nobody’s interested in. So you’ll get a former Marine sitting at a desk to promote his memoir of returning from soldiering to deal with the next challenge in his life, say, a life-threatening disease, the combination of which is supposed to expand the appeal but risks alienating anyone interested in the soldiering because they’re not interested in the disease, or vice versa. So there’ll be some musclebound guy in an ill-fitting suit sitting at a desk with a pile of books and spending his day smiling awkwardly while being left alone to keep glancing at his watch. This, of course, becomes an ‘event’, or maybe even ‘community outreach’.
                Stuff like this, along with the WHSmithification, is probably the commercial reality of competing with online prices by keeping contact with as broad an audience as possible. Waterstones is the generalist. It might make more sense for its logo colour to be grey or beige.

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                • Ste J

                  25/06/2015 at 20:35

                  I find it awkward seeing those authors at the desk, if it was less awkward I may talk to them but I am rubbish with new people at the best of times but initiating a most likely awkward situation, even I’m not that masochistic. These writers are better off getting a blog but then I suppose that is cutting out the shops so they will retreat into giving people what they recognise as you say. It’s just a shame they don’t attempt to be an alternative to the online traders but merely encourage people to go there and haemorrhage their profits more adding to the spiral.

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            • Ste J

              25/06/2015 at 09:35

              May have to add this book to my list as well, it sounds like a cross between Flann O’ Brien’s style of footnote and something from House of leaves.

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              • Jeff

                25/06/2015 at 10:35

                Interesting reference. May come across O’Brien secondhand. I notice he wrote hoax letters, which isn’t surprising for a metafictionaliser. I’m reading about art forgeries currently. Reading to cackle to!

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                • Ste J

                  25/06/2015 at 20:30

                  I have only read The Third Policeman which was a decent read although I did get frustrated in parts with that. Art forgeries sounds like an interesting business and is also the main reason I don’t fork out for a Van Gogh.

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  4. Jilanne Hoffmann

    19/06/2015 at 07:35

    Oh, dear. Yet another to add to the pile. This sounds very interesting. Very interesting, indeed. Thanks for the stellar rec!

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    • Ste J

      19/06/2015 at 19:54

      I feel no guilt for adding to your book choices haha. I think this could well be my favourite book of the year so far but then again on another day I would probably say something else, such is my fickle nature around books.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  5. Alastair Savage

    19/06/2015 at 07:59

    Reading your review makes me wonder how Trotsky is portrayed in the novel. After he was outmaneuvered, exiled and eventually murdered by Stalin, Trotsky was always the beneficiary of people’s goodwill, seeing him as the pleasant human alternative to Stalin. Although clearly he was nowhere near as murderous as Stalin, Trotsky was still a ruthless, cold-blooded man. No one else could have been prepared to overthrow the Czar and then lead the military side of the Russian Revolution from his special train. Driven to desperate means by the cruelty and oppression of the Czarist regime, he was a dyed in the wool revolutionary who was prepared to risk large numbers of casualties to achieve his aims. In other words, it isn’t clear whether Trotsky would have been a whole lot different to Uncle Joe had he managed to succeed Lenin.

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    • Ste J

      19/06/2015 at 20:03

      Trotsky is portrayed as regretting the lives lost in the past in his name but also as being resolute that his actions were right. He comes across as a decent bloke who had my sympathy despite that being at odds with his past actions, maybe it has something to do with his imminent end, that always colours a reader’s views or perhaps it is just the shock of his downfall that has given him a more sympathetic air. It will be most interesting to read other books on Trotsky to see how they compare.

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  6. shadowoperator

    19/06/2015 at 12:37

    If you wish to read more fiction-based-on-fact about that period in Mexico and Trotsky’s life and death at around the same time, you might want to pick up a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “The Lacuna.” The narrator is like a lacuna himself, a sort of blank spot on the canvas, a spot which he is modest about filling in as he writes about others’ lives, including the lives of husband-and-wife artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (don’t know if I’m spelling his last name correctly), who were Trotsky’s hosts when he was in Mexico, and I believe made his house available to him. As one gets farther and farther into the novel, of course, these “stars in the firmament” pass out of the main focus and the lacuna himself tells more about his own life. But then, at the end, he steps into a lacuna of a place and time himself, travelling back to a place where he was happy. It’s one of the best novels I think I’ve ever read. Sorry to be long-winded; just wanted to take cognizance of your interest in the subject.

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    • Ste J

      19/06/2015 at 20:17

      No, no please don’t apologise, reading about books you are passionate about is great and the way you describe it is fantastic and to see these familiar people in other fictional works will be extremely interesting. It’s now added to my Amazon wishlist and it is high praise indeed to hear that this is one of the best novels you have read.

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  7. Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

    19/06/2015 at 14:00

    This is a possible 🙂

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    • Ste J

      19/06/2015 at 19:52

      Excellent, I like adding more reading material to your list and this one is not only a great story but gives a good history lesson as well.

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  8. Sarah

    19/06/2015 at 20:13

    I am so excited by this! I read Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Lacuna’ a couple of years ago, which explores the relationship between Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Trotsky through the eyes of a third party, the main protagonist of the story. Before reading that I had no idea about this moment in history, and I’d love to read more. Here is the perfect book – hooray! 🙂

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    • Ste J

      19/06/2015 at 20:22

      I just answered a comment which named the very same book which is now residing on my wishlist. Padura’s work will give you a different take on the events you read before but will also flesh out the whole history leading up to the tragic events and it really keeps the attention despite its size.

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    • shadowoperator

      19/06/2015 at 23:10

      Hi, Sarah! If you liked Kingsolver’s style and don’t mind reading two other of her novels which are purely novels (however well researched), you might like “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Prodigal Summer.” Back when there was a Border’s in our area, I went there once a week and took a copy of “The Poisonwood Bible” down from the shelf and sat in one of their comfy chairs and read, as they used to allow as long as you didn’t damage the book. I finally finished it. Of the two, however, I preferred “Prodigal Summer,” because that’s really the quality that people in the temperate zone love the most about summer, I think, its prodigal quality. And that’s the quality that is quickly being eaten away now by global warming. But the book was excellent. I can see putting it in a time capsule for the benefit of our descendants, who may have to do without summer at all.

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  9. LuAnn

    21/06/2015 at 17:09

    I have been looking for a book of depth to embark upon and I believe you have guided me there Ste J. I do agree with your sentiments regarding politics, the belief in something wholly (many times blindly), justifying some very ridiculous actions.

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    • Ste J

      21/06/2015 at 17:16

      Although it’s crammed full of detail, it is one of those books that glides smoothly and never bogs you down with confusion, although there is a lot going on it all makes sense first time around and just keeps building up. Politics is a strange choice for career, you just end up being mistrusted and disliked by a large proportion of your country and usually beyond.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • LuAnn

        21/06/2015 at 17:20

        Sadly even those who enter this arena with good intentions have an uphill struggle against less than noble forces.

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        • Ste J

          21/06/2015 at 17:25

          This is true and there seems little effort to change it either.

          Liked by 1 person

           

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