Leonardo Padura is a Cuban novelist, known first and foremost as one of the most exciting crime novelists of our time. In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Padura presents us with an epic, Tolstoyan novel that mostly succeeds in the ambitious goals he has set for the work. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, arguably the preeminent political event of the twentieth century. Yes, the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany is perhaps equally important, but we need to recall that his rise was in part made possible by the perceived need to allow such an unscrupulous, hate-filled demagogue a free hand so that the Communist menace, inspired by events in Russia, might be successfully destroyed. This novel is one of the few I have encountered that provides an adequate account of the myriad ways that the Revolution fought for by various idealists and scoundrels detonated around the world, with far-reaching effects in Third World countries like Cuba.
Our contemporary world is so different from the time a century ago when so many writers and ordinary citizens were convinced that only a political revolution and dynamic forces of change could bring the needed progress and justice to the tottering and seemingly decadent world that had emerged at the end of the First World War. Now, it is difficult for us to attain an adequate understanding of the hopes that emerged in the early years of the Russian Revolution. One of the exciting things about Padura’s novel is the expert way he is able to integrate a narrative of the heady days, with all their promise, of the “Ten Days That Shook the World”, to use the brilliant phrase of the American journalist John Reed, and the major reforms instituted by Vladimir Lenin and his key lieutenants, including Leon Trotsky, into the fictional tale told by his Cuban narrator, Ivan Cardenas. This narrative describes the dramatic arc which took Trotsky and his family and friends from the top of the political ladder to a shocking situation wherein he had been demonized and expelled from the country.
In gripping fashion, Padura is able to bring Trotsky alive, his fierce determination to see a world-wide revolution succeed and his growing fears for the fate of the revolution…
In gripping fashion, Padura is able to bring Trotsky alive, his fierce determination to see a world-wide revolution succeed and his growing fears for the fate of the revolution, all its gains jeopardized by the ruthless seizure of power by Josef Stalin, who undeniably betrayed the better prospects that the Revolution had once held. The novel builds in intensity in the period of 1939 and 1940, when Trotsky has accepted an invitation of asylum from President Cardenas of Mexico, who comes off in this work as a remarkably courageous and fair-minded political leader, one who could be said to have upheld the finest principles of international law and political decency.
Any attempt to describe the vast scope of the three interrelated plots in this hefty novel would take up far more space than I have here. I would like to focus on a rather amazing legal aspect of the whole sorry anti-Trotsky saga and its ramifications for world history. This is the ongoing efforts of the Soviet state under dictation from Stalin the new, murderous Czar, to link “criminal plot” to subvert the Soviet state after “criminal plot” to the machinations of Trotsky, supposedly orchestrated from abroad. The Moscow show trials are now well understood to have involved the wholesale fabrication of evidence, the torture and unrelenting coercion of all of the major accused persons as well as witnesses, forced confessions and denial of the most basic legal presumptions and protections. However, at the time, a reasonable proportion of the general public across the globe accepted the various guilty verdicts as being the result of proper trials or alternatively, were simply uncertain as to what had transpired and unwilling to question the legal conclusions or the mass executions or lengthy sentences that were meted out. Gullible reporters from mainstream newspapers like the New York Times recounted the trials and generally accepted the results at face value. Only some years later did widespread criticism and revulsion set in, long after it was too late to have done much good. The novelist rather carefully controls point of view to compel the reader to appreciate both the ridiculousness of the charges and the findings of guilt, given the many improbabilities associated with plots involving virtually all of the “Old Guard” of revolutionaries to destroy the very cause they gave their heart and soul to, and the stakes involved for the political left in various countries. Further, the changing political situation would make it more and more frightening for Trotsky and his loved ones, who we see are all to be sacrificial victims to the new cult of Stalin as Maximum Leader. What should be the majesty of the law, its ability to carefully, dispassionately sift through various allegations to come to a fair and just result, is crudely corrupted by this pathetic display of “revolutionary justice.”
The Moscow show trials are now well understood to have involved the wholesale fabrication of evidence, the torture and unrelenting coercion of all of the major accused persons as well as witnesses, forced confessions and denial of the most basic legal presumptions and protections.
Reading The Man Who Loved Dogs, I got a vivid sense of the machinations that placed leading up to the trials of so many leading Soviet figures in the dock at the nauseating show trials of 1936-38 (not understood generally to have been show trials at the time). I can still summon up the image of the fervent denunciations and wild gesticulations of the prosecutor Viyshinsky, acting as the people’s representative and conscience, presenting a supposed ironclad case and then asking for the death sentence to be imposed on the “rabid dogs” that had betrayed the people’s trust. The trials took place in the Great Hall of the Columns of the House of Trade Unions, a massive and forbidding fortress indeed. We can visualize the statements by the lawyers and the confessions of guilt by chastened accused, trembling with emotion, who are at pains to place their actions within the context of the ongoing revolutionary struggle.
Padura shifts between this harsh, violent land of “dog eat dog” to the seemingly tranquil beach scenes where Ivan, the narrator, a failed writer who has mourned the recent death of his wife and later describes the tragedy of his family, when it is learned that his brother William is homosexual and will face discrimination and persecution, eventually dying in mysterious circumstances. Ivan’s story of his family and its travails serves as an important counterpoint to the story of the larger-than-life Trotsky and the plot to assassinate him. With the plot of the narrator and the Cubans in his life, we are given an essential element of what makes the novel such a powerful and irreplaceable art form – as Flaubert states, the history of the common man can be told and can be placed on the same plane of significance as that of the history of great men and nations. Indeed, as I myself have just returned from a trip to Cuba and had the opportunity to converse with any number of remarkable Cubans, this novel has opened up for me in a brilliant way the manner in which the greater forces of history can impact even a small, remote island its rarely noticed people (Cold War victims of both a repressive dictator who denied free speech and a pitiless and pointless American economic blockade). Just as Ivan’s interest in ferreting out the details of the assassination and its aftermath are initially triggered by the simple human connection between himself and the mysterious Spanish stranger on the beach, accompanied by two purebred Russian wolfhounds, based on a shared love of dogs, so too I found on my trip that a shared love of boating, Cuban music, and baseball led to any number of fascinating discussions with my Cuban hosts.
Given the limited access Cubans have to history books and to the modern communications we now possess in the digital age, the need for Ivan as writer to search for clues and dig deep to locate the full meaning of the events he is finally able to narrate for us gives the novel an urgency it might otherwise lack. Similarly, the tone created by the narrator as ordinary, troubled citizens, with many failures to contemplate gives the epic tale a freshness that a historical account cannot match. I would like to conclude with words of praise for Padura’s unobtrusive introduction of vital participants in the story who serve as counterparts to the evil machinations of Stalin and his Communist henchmen. During on one of the scenes in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and in the context for the recruitment of Ramon Mercarder, an assassin, we meet a very tall, very thin man with a horse like face in a Barcelona hotel, who turns out to be none other than George Orwell, brave volunteer in the fight for the democratic Republic. Later, reference will be made to the fantastic novel he wrote, 1984, a work which the narrator ruefully notes would turn out to be all too close to being a realistic account of the political situation Ivan must confront. In the novel, we are given a clear example of all that was lacking in the system of “revolutionary justice “ that was supposed to have brought into being a new and better world, but ended up as a suffocating hell.
The other character of note is John Dewey, the aging liberal philosopher who is selected to chair a Commission of Inquiry into the allegations made against Trotsky. He travels to Mexico City and there displays the necessary qualities of an impartial and fair minded judge. He sifts through the allegations, allows Trotsky to mount a defence, including evidence that clearly refutes a number of the charges that the totalitarian justice system had made against him. Dewey then works patiently but persistently to finish the Report that will permanently exist as a vital counterpoint to the fraudulent proceedings that had earlier occurred in Moscow. In the novel, we are given a clear example of all that was lacking in the system of “revolutionary justice “ that was supposed to have brought into being a new and better world, but ended up as a suffocating hell.