The Man Who Loved Dogs
Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35.00 (cloth)

One of Mexico City’s most beloved attractions is Frida Kahlo’s brightly painted house, which encapsulates the famous artist’s personal suffering but also her immense creativity and warmth. Just a few blocks away is another museum, far less exuberant: Leon Trotsky’s house, where the exiled Russian revolutionary leader died. When I visited it years ago, the house was sparsely furnished and rather grimly curated, with poorly reproduced photos and newspaper clippings, dusty and dimly lit rooms, the outer walls of the compound strafed with bullets. The most touching object on view was a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, perhaps the very glasses Trotsky was wearing when an assassin plunged an ice pick into the back of his head in August of 1940.

Trotsky’s spectacular killing is the heart of a new novel by the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, The Man Who Loved Dogs, published in English earlier this year in a masterful translation by Anna Kushner. In a meticulous recreation of the events leading up to that shocking assassination, the book provides a searing denunciation of the Stalinist perversion of socialism’s democratic promise. As one character puts it, “utopia was betrayed and, worse still, turned into the deceit of man’s best desires.”

Though it is impossible to read the book without seeing it as a direct critique of the Cuban revolution, it also goes beyond Cuba, to what Padura sees as Stalinism’s original sin: the pollution of the “poor Communist dream.” The novel explores the way Stalinism first corrupted socialism in the Soviet Union, then extended its toxic imprint beyond its own borders, finally leaving a long legacy that far outlived Stalin himself. Padura is not interested in the standoff between the capitalist and socialist worlds; he untangles the repressive elements within socialism itself. He uses Stalin’s hunting and killing of Trotsky to understand the failures and excesses of state socialism.

Padura sees Stalin’s long shadow on everything from epic acts of tragedy, such as the defeat of the Spanish republicans in the Civil War, to smaller, everyday acts of marginalization in Cuba in the 1970s. The intolerance and repression honed in the Soviet Union, he suggests, were first used to betray and defeat the Spanish Republicans, whom Stalin feared as a Leftist movement he could not manipulate or control, then later imposed on Cuba’s revolution, especially by 1970 when Cuba’s precarious economic situation forced it to accept greater Soviet oversight.

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As the novel opens in 1929, Trotsky has been forced from the political margins of the USSR into physical exile in Mexico. Exile forces Trotsky to come to terms with his past. As the aging revolutionary fires off manifestos and rejoinders, rallies old collaborators and recruits new followers, he also questions his own role in the revolution’s slide toward despotism. Had he used excessive force in crushing a 1921 naval revolt? Should the Bolsheviks have allowed free elections? He accepted without question the use of repression against elites, but was it also wrong to repress workers? If the revolution had begun to devour its own children, Trotsky realizes, he himself “had been bestowed the sad honor of giving the order that started the banquet.”

Jumping forward to the late 1970s, the purely fictional (though somewhat autobiographical) Iván Cárdenas, once a promising Cuban writer, is mired in cynicism. Iván stumbles across a mysterious foreigner with a pair of purebred Russian wolfhounds on a beach. The foreigner turns out to be Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin. (All three characters share a fondness for dogs, but the novel’s title technically describes Mercader, who spends his final years doting on his delicate hounds.) Mercader, a Spanish Republican recruited and trained by Soviet advisers during the Spanish Civil War, spent his final years in Cuba after two decades of imprisonment in Mexico. Claiming to have been a friend of Trotsky’s killer, Mercader slowly reveals his story to Iván.

Fear and obedience, in Padura’s novel, form the bedrock of Stalin’s version of socialism.

If Padura uses Trotsky to explore the power struggles within Soviet socialism, he uses Ramón Mercader to try to understand how dogma is imposed and accepted. Mercader is slowly hardened by years of struggle in the Spanish Civil War, the deaths of friends and relatives, and the revanchist triumph of Franco. After a long stint of Soviet training bordering on brainwashing, he emerges as one of several elite undercover operatives tasked with infiltrating Trotsky’s Mexican compound and ultimately killing him. Despite some initial doubts, the weak-minded, easily manipulated Ramón finally accepts his Soviet trainer’s suggestion that “ruthlessness was necessary to reach victory.”

Some of the novel’s most chilling sequences take place in Moscow, which Ramón visits during a break in training. There, he witnesses the last of the show trials, the Trial of the Twenty-One, which purged alleged Trotsky supporters and “rightists.” Despite Ramón’s steadfast support of Stalin and the Soviet Union, he is troubled by the proceedings when one prisoner, secret police officer Genrikh Yagoda, surprises the court by refusing to admit to all his alleged crimes. Then, after a five-hour break, Yagoda “appeared to have aged ten years . . . When the judge demanded it of him, the accused arose with difficulty. He looked like a corpse.” He accepts all charges against him.

Later in the book, Trotsky ruminates on these same trials, surmising that “Stalin demanded more than a truth: he demanded the human and political destruction of the accused.” Stalin, Trotsky realizes, will not be content with his mere physical destruction. Trotsky’s enemies have also “devoted themselves to annihilating him from history and memory, which had also become the party’s property.” Parallel to the physical manhunt is a war of ideas, as Trotsky and Soviet propagandists propagate their conflicting views in publications and conferences. The Stalinists win.

Fear and obedience, in Padura’s novel, form the bedrock of Stalin’s version of socialism. “How many times have you heard the word ‘obedience’ in the last two days?” Mercader is asked after arriving in the Soviet Union. “And you’ll hear it a thousand more times, because it’s the most important word. After it come ‘loyalty’ and ‘discretion.’ This is the holy trinity and you should tattoo it on your forehead.”

Padura’s central visual metaphor for Stalinism is a deformed monstrosity of a hotel, asymmetrical and grotesque, rising hauntingly in a plaza near the Kremlin. Ramón’s Soviet handler explains that Stalin accidentally authorized two separate architectural plans for the hotel. The architects dreaded bothering “Comrade Stalin” for clarification, and also feared his retribution if they didn’t follow orders. They finally decided to implement both designs in a single hotel, which thereafter stood as an unintended monument to fear and blind obedience. “A triumph of socialist architecture,” Mercader’s handler proclaims proudly.

It is a dark history. Yet it simultaneously captures the seductive sense of promise that revolutionary movements once offered to those swept up in their wake: the sense of participating in an epic historical drama; the unshakable confidence in a utopian future; the subordination of one’s petty daily existence to a larger calling; the dogmatic and Manichean sense of clarity between right and wrong, friend and enemy.

Years later when asked what he knows about Trotsky, the Cuban writer Iván can only recite mechanically that Trotsky betrayed the Soviet Union. “In our classes on Marxism . . . they told us that Trotsky was a renegade and that Trotskyism was revisionist and counterrevolutionary, an attack on the Soviet Union.” With his curiosity piqued after meeting Mercader, Iván seeks out more information about Trotsky, combing libraries and asking old friends for books published abroad. This section has an autobiographical ring to it. In a book presentation in Brooklyn several months ago, Padura noted the irony that while he, as a university student, wandered around Havana looking for information on Trotsky, he may have unknowingly crossed paths with Trotsky’s killer. This book is Padura’s way of finally quenching that thirst for historical knowledge.

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Padura is a unique figure in contemporary Cuban literature. His detective series, featuring failed writer-turned-policeman Mario Conde, is probably the closest thing Cuba has to a blockbuster. The novels, set on the eve of the post-Soviet depression of the 1990s, are permeated by a sense of sadness and nostalgia. The novels function as gripping crime stories, but Padura also uses the genre as a device to explore relatively taboo aspects of life in Cuba, as Conde uncovers government corruption and persistent social inequality as he untangles murders.

In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Padura captures something of the evolution of the island’s literary scene from the 1960s to the present. Despite the ominous tone of Fidel Castro’s June 1961 speech “Words to the Intellectuals,” in which he famously warned, “within the revolution, everything goes; against the revolution, nothing,” the 1960s remained relatively open and experimental. But the so-called “Gray Period” from the late 1960s to mid-1970s was inaugurated with the arrest of the poet Heberto Padilla, who was then pressured into conducting a humiliating public “self-criticism,” often described as a tropical echo of the Stalinist show trials. Padilla denounced himself as a “bourgeois writer, unworthy of being read by workers and unable to understand the complexity of the revolutionary process.” Padilla’s brief imprisonment sparked a watershed moment internationally, as many Latin American intellectuals broke with the revolution. Cultural production henceforth was much more tightly controlled.

It is this period Padura that narrates through the character Iván. Iván’s promising literary career is truncated by a “corrective,” that is, his demotion to copy editor at a veterinary magazine after writing an overly critical novel. This is not the spectacular debasement suffered by Padilla, nor the epic persecution that Reinaldo Arenas made famous in his memoir Before Night Falls. Rather, Ivan and most others of his generation were subjected to subtler, everyday forms of marginalization. “They make you nothing,” Ivan explains to his girlfriend Ana. “Do you know what it is to feel marginalized, forbidden, buried alive at the age of thirty, thirty-five, when you can really begin to be a serious writer?” Exhausted and embittered, a whole generation of forgotten writers was worn down by the “ubiquitous layer of suspicion, intolerance, and national uniformity.”

Censure extended beyond authors and intellectuals into the broader realm of youth culture. Iván describes Cuba’s isolation from global trends of the 1960s: no joints, little sexual experimentation, and a vicious homosexual witch-hunt perpetrated at Havana University and elsewhere. Iván’s brother’s is prohibited from studying medicine after authorities discover that he is gay. Padura, born in 1955, came of age after this crucible, but his generation was profoundly marked by the turn to a more repressive cultural politics and the rise of socialist realism in the arts.

The fall of the Soviet Union inaugurated an era of immense material scarcity in Cuba, but also much greater political openness. The art and literature of the 1990s were more openly critical as the boundaries of what could be said widened. The state largely moved from direct censorship of writers to less direct strategies, such as blocking access to institutional resources and refusing to publish or promote work. Yet many artists and writers found acclaim abroad in this period, and this in turn gave them a certain protection from censure at home. (State oversight of independent journalism has remained militant since the 1990s.)

Padura’s star, too, began to rise in this period. He had been a journalist at one of the state-run newspapers through the 1980s, but the inferno of Cuba’s so-called “Special Period” in the 1990s somehow spurred him to write. It was in this period that Padura wrote much of the tetralogy that made him famous, published in English as the Havana Quartet. When he received the Spanish Café Gijon literary prize in 1996, he had arrived. He now enjoys the kind of international stature that can make an author virtually untouchable in Cuba.

Unlike some other Cuban writers, Padura has not sought a more comfortable life abroad. He remains, in fact, in his childhood home in a dilapidated neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. Despite some elements of caution in his official reception—for example, The Man Who Loved Dogs was originally given a very limited distribution on the island—he was recently awarded a national literary prize. And though he occasionally publishes damning excavations of revolutionary history, he carefully skirts the limits of permissible critique in Cuba. When questioned at his Brooklyn reading about openly dissident journalists such as the blogger Yoani Sánchez, Padura first noted that while some critical journalists have become famous worldwide, many Cuban authors with the same concerns remain relatively unknown: Cuban novelists can’t take the same narrow national focus as journalists if they hope to reach audiences beyond the island.

How Padura navigates these boundaries in the future remains to be seen. Raúl Castro’s replacement of Fidel at the helm several years ago seems to have gradually given way to a more permissive cultural mood in officialdom. But Cubans know that such periods come and go. If Iván’s story teaches us anything, it is the fragility of intellectual life when it collides with reasons of state.

Padura has just been named one of the contributors to BBC Mundo’s Voces desde Cuba, a much awaited group blog from the island. The BBC’s editors pitch the blog as stories of daily life from “the island where the Communist Party and a society of growing inequality converge.” That is, an island of contradictions, classic Padura territory.