Structured something like a Russian nesting doll, the new novel by lauded Cuban writer Leonado Padura takes as its subject a titan of Soviet history. The Man Who Loves Dogs opens with a narrator named Iván Cárdenas Maturell remembering a man he once knew who told him the details of his violent and radicalized life, hinting at the time that many years earlier, he had assassinated Leon Trotsky in Mexico using an ice pick.
By the book’s end, another level of legacy will be added, as Ivan remembers his story to another younger man. And these are only the sections that take place in the present; many pages are spent following the lives of the main players, including Trotsky himself, toward their fateful intersection.
The word “ambitious” is often reviewer-speak for “long,” and the novel is indeed that, at more than 550 pages. The word also can also imply the failure of a book to live up to its own expectations, but here that is not the case. Padura, who first conceived of the story while the Berlin Wall still stood, somehow manages to impose a riveting narrative form on what would otherwise be a textbook-level treatise on the rise and schism of international communism and how it has reverberated through the years to inform the lives of those still under its rule.
Padura’s purposes are helped by the fact that Trotsky was so deeply involved with communism’s internal and external machinations, including the overthrow of the Czar, the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion and the rise of Stalin. By tracing his ignominious exile (several exiles, in fact) and frustrated attempts to further influence the course of world politics while abroad, Padura puts a human face on what might have otherwise been a stale chess match of ideology.
Meanwhile, we watch as a young man named Ramon Mercader is indoctrinated by his passionately communist mother, takes up arms against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, is recruited by the NKVD and installs himself in Trotsky’s inner circle outside of Mexico, where he waits for the moment to strike.
As Iván is the only one of the three main characters who didn’t exist in real life, the sections that follow him are the most explicitly novelistic. A Cuba-born writer, his initially promising literary career is dashed when his stories are deemed “counter revolutionary,” and he is forced to take a job at a veterinary magazine. There he meets the aged Ramon, who, with his two Russian wolfhounds, serves as the inspiration for the novel’s title.
You might expect a premise like this to collapse under the weight of its own pretension, but a wonderful translation by Anna Kushner supports the grand structure of the book, while maintaining Padura’s complex and muscular prose. He writes the sort of sentences that require confidence in the political import of literature, which we so rarely see these days in American authors.
In this section, Trotsky begins to realize just how determined Stalin is to hunt him down: “Stalin’s hate, turned into a reason d’etat, had put in motion the most powerful marginalization machinery ever directed against a solitary individual. It had become entrenched as a universal strategy of a communism controlled from Moscow and even as the editorial policy of dozens of newspapers … For a time [Trotsky] dared to think about his life as a tragedy: classic, Greek-style, without any opportunities for appeal.”
That Padura’s political intentions are not at first overt is the mark of an artist, rather than an ideologue. Is this a eulogy for the murdered comrade or for the spirit of the people that his ideology was used to oppress? By the end of the book, though, his intentions are clear, stated in the voice of the man who befriends Iván in his last days: “What about people? Did they ask me, did they ask Iván, if we agreed to postpone our dreams, lives, and everything else until they disappeared (dreams, lives and even the Holy Spirit) in historical fatigue and the perverted utopia?”
For an author who lives and writes in the intensely censorious Cuba, the publishing of this book represents not only an impressive artistic achievement but also an act of bravery.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.