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Reviews for The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura
‘Leon Trotsky's brutal assassination by a Stalinist agent in Mexico in August 1940 might seem an unlikely wellspring for fiction, but it has inspired more than one novelist in recent years. Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna," published in 2009, centered on an aspiring writer, a Mexican-American, who is shown joining Trotsky's Mexican household as it braces for the Kremlin's assault. In the same year, in Spanish, Leonardo Padura's "The Man Who Loved Dogs" was published, making its central figure the real-life assassin himself, Ramón Mercader. That novel is just now appearing in an English translation, alongside, coincidentally, John Davidson's Trotsky-themed "The Obedient Assassin." In "The Man Who Loved Dogs," Mr. Padura, best known in his native Cuba for his detective novels, relies heavily for his facts and interpretation on "The Prophet Outcast" (1963), Isaac Deutscher's overtly sympathetic account of Trotsky's life in exile. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 after losing out to Stalin in a bitter contest for leadership of the Communist Party. He headed first to Turkey, then France and Norway, and finally Mexico, where he landed in January 1937. Mr. Padura's most strenuous imaginative work involves filling in Mercader's background. What is known for certain is that the Spanish-born Soviet agent gained entry into Trotskyist circles by adopting the identity of a Belgian playboy and seducing an American Trotskyist visiting Paris. He then joined her in New York, from which he lured her to Mexico City on the pretext of a business assignment. Once there, he used his connection to her to insinuate himself into Trotsky's heavily guarded household: an occasional visitor waiting for his moment to strike. Mr. Padura interweaves these narrative threads with another, this one running through Cuba, where Trotsky is officially vilified to this day for betraying the revolution. Mr. Padura's Cuban narrator is Iván, a writer at a creative dead end who one day in 1977 meets a man on the beach walking his two borzois (Russian wolfhounds)—a man who he comes to realize, during later encounters, is Trotsky's killer, now living in Cuba under a new name after having served 20 years in a Mexican prison for his crime and several more marking time in Moscow. "The man who loved dogs," as Iván calls him, is dying of cancer and decides, cautiously, to reveal his story. Mr. Padura contrives to have Mercader first hear about the borzoi breed from George Orwell, whom he supposedly encountered in Barcelona, where "Ramón and Orwell almost never spoke of politics: they tended to talk about dogs." Mr. Padura steeps the assassin's back story in scenes from the Spanish Civil War, which served as a recruiting ground for the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Mr. Padura's Mercader is brought to the U.S.S.R. to undergo training, even attending one of the Moscow show trials, where he witnesses chief prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky scream at the defendants: "You all deserve to die like dogs!" Flash forward to 1977 and the beach in Cuba, where Mercader laments that one of his two borzois has fallen ill and will have to be put down; he dreads the prospect and asks the young man for assistance. Iván, who runs a bare-bones veterinary clinic and is himself a dog lover, flinches and refuses to help. Trotsky, it turns out, also loved dogs. We are told that he insisted on bringing his own borzoi with him from Russia to Turkey. Mr. Padura then allows him to acquire a dog in Mexico, whereas in fact Trotsky's restricted mobility limited him to pet rabbits and chickens kept in cages beneath the high walls of his fortresslike home. It is there that Mr. Padura's Trotsky instructs Mercader on the intellectual superiority of dogs to humans, as the novelist lets his dog motif run off the leash. "Find yourself a borzoi," Trotsky tells him, and "you'll never forget me." Spy-novel clichés and hard-boiled dialogue ("he's in Washington, singing like a canary") keep the pages of "The Man Who Loved Dogs" turning. Despite Mr. Padura's tendency to let a few of his characters make overlong speeches about the meaning of identity and the failure of the socialist utopia, the tension builds toward a dramatic climax that helps to make his novel a rewarding read, despite its excesses. Both novelists take liberties with history, some reasonable and others dubious. They both make Trotsky and his wife, Natalya, the houseguests of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in a suburb of Mexico City, when in fact the couples, though living near one another, never spent time under the same roof. Perhaps this arrangement simplifies telling the tale of Trotsky's real-life affair with Frida. Mr. Davidson tries to raise the temperature by having Mercader himself take her to bed when she visits Paris. "I love Diego," his noir-cartoon Frida remarks, "but he's a sadistic pig." Mercader's real-life conquest in Paris was Sylvia Ageloff, a homely Trotskyist social worker from New York. Mr. Padura's Sylvia is indeed physically unattractive, to the point that Mercader has to steel himself to perform as required, whereas in Mr. Davidson's novel Mercader falls in love with Sylvia, asks her to marry him, and can't take his mind off her. The effect is to make Mercader seem a puppy dog instead of the calculating hit man he actually was. Conspiring behind the scenes, in both novels, is Caridad Mercader, Ramón's domineering and high-strung mother. Mr. Padura gives Caridad a heroin habit, while Mr. Davidson portrays her as addicted to knitting needles, turning out endless socks and sweaters like some pathological Hitchcock character. (In real life, she was a hardened combat veteran of the war in Spain.) Working closely with mother and son in Paris and Mexico is (true to life) Leonid Eitingon, from the NKVD. Mr. Padura follows fact in having the secret police call the conspiracy to kill Trotsky "Operation Duck," which means that Eitingon can announce dramatically: "The time to hunt the Duck has come." Mr. Davidson prefers the Freudian frisson of "Operation Mother." Mr. Padura's Mercader is a killer to the end, never losing sight of the "historic necessity" of eliminating the treacherous renegade who is dividing the left in the face of Hitler. This portrayal seems realistic based on what is known about Mercader. Mr. Davidson's assassin, still in love with Sylvia, improbably gets cold feet. Trotsky poses no threat to Stalin, he informs Eitingon: "The Old Man is harmless." Only when Eitingon tells the disobedient Mercader that the NKVD will kill all three of them if he bails out does he grasp that he has no choice but to go through with it. When Mercader announces that he has decided on using a mountaineer's ice ax for the purpose, Eitingon responds like Ward Cleaver looking up from his newspaper: "You're thinking of going into his office with a farming implement?" In the actual event, the assassin entered Trotsky's study armed with a pistol, a dagger and an ice axe. He struck the fatal blow—though Trotsky fought him off, emitting a prolonged, agonized cry that was heard throughout the compound and that would later haunt his killer, as we know from the real Mercader's testimony to police investigators. In Mr. Padura's novel, it haunts him into old age, on that desolate beach in Cuba.' - Wall Street Journal
‘Behind its title taken from a Raymond Chandler short story hides a magnificent novel, a hymn to lost illusions and an indictment of Stalinism, that deadliest utopia of the last century.' - Livres-Hebdo

'The Man Who Loved Dogs, by the Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, is a long (really too long) thriller about Mexico’s most famous assassination case. Having been jailed by the Mexican authorities for 20 years on a murder charge, in 1960 Ramón Mercader went to live in Fidel’s revolutionary Havana. A year later, in 1961, he transferred to Moscow, where the Khrushchev regime declared him a hero of the people (even though Khrushchev had earlier denounced Stalin as a mass-murderer). To the end of his days, Mercader moved between domiciles in Russia and Cuba; he died in Havana in 1978, more or less forgotten.

Padura fortifies his story with details culled from the many biographies of Trotsky (notably, Bertrand Patenaude’s recent Stalin’s Nemesis) to create a book which is James Ellroy-like in its scope and heft. At nearly 600 pages The Man Who Loved Dogs is certainly too heavy on the wrists, but all the same it’s absorbing.

The narrative opens in Havana one day in the late 1970s; a mysterious man is seen walking his Russian wolfhounds on a beach. Could he be the infamous Mercader? Along the way, Padura tells of other attempts made on Trotsky’s life. The first occurred on 24 May 1940, when a group of 20 armed Stalinists stormed his Mexican house; having disarmed the bodyguards, they threw grenades and machine-gunned about the place. Trotsky and his wife Natalia survived by huddling under their bed; a bullet fired at their sleeping grandson Esteban passed through the mattress and merely grazed him. Miraculously, Trotsky received no more than scratches to the face from flying glass; next time it would be the blunt end of an ice-pick.

Seemingly, the purpose of the 24 May raid was not just murder but arson: the bullets were intended for Trotsky; the incendiary bombs for his personal papers, which contained damaging allegations about the Great Terror of 1937-38, when anyone who had threatened the Soviet Union by so much as his thoughts would have to be liquidated, Stalin decreed. Trotsky, a vain, brilliant and in many ways unpleasant man, is brought to vivid life and death in this atmospheric noir.’ - Spectator
‘The publication of this work has raised the profile and prestige of Padura as a writer of stature, not just in Cuba but internationally. It is well deserved. It is both a brilliantly executed novel and a most impressive work of historical investigation. It should be obligatory reading for all those who are interested in socialism and historical truth. I should add that the English translation is outstanding.' - Marxism
‘Leonardo Padura, known for his detective novels, has made his entrance to the Latin American Modernist canon by writing a Russian novel. Its Russian quality comes not only from its length and the fact that it returns constantly to Moscow, but from its Tolstoyan passion for historical trifles and Dostoyevskyan pleasure in examining the moral life of its characters...The Man Who Loved Dogs tells the story of the exile of Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated by Ramon Mercader in Mexico on August 20, 1940.' - New York Times
'The Man Who Loved Dogs is a book that nurtures a reader's soul; as a kind of historical detective story, with its interweaving richly conveyed narratives, this novel entices as any good mystery must; but it is also a work of literary ambition-- with wonderful care given over to the sweep and timbre of its prose; unflinching in its devotion to the truth, especially in its portraiture of life in Cuba during the difficult "special period" of the 1990s, this novel also reminds us that the seeds for the world we live in today were planted long ago. In Leonardo Padura, earlier Cuban writers like Jose Lezama Lima and Guillermo Cabrera Infante have found a worthy successor.' - Oscar Hijuelos, author of Mambo Kings who Sing Songs of Love.
‘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 reviewerspeak 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.' - Miami Herald
“Even if it's a lie, we'll make it the truth,” declaims a character in Leonardo Padura's monumental novel “The Man Who Loved Dogs.” “And that's what matters.” ‘Focused on Stalin's murderous obsession with Leon Trotsky, an intellectual architect of the Russian Revolution and the founder of the Red Army, Padura has written a historical novel of Tolstoyan sweep. The bonus thrill stems from knowing that this horrific tale — and most of its characters — are all too true. Bottom of Form Padura made his name writing an entertaining quartet of Chandleresque detective novels set in Havana and featuring the erudite Lt. Mario Conde. But in “The Man Who Loved Dogs,” Padura attempts nothing less than an inquest into how revolutionary utopias devolve into totalitarian dystopias. At the same time, he has written an irresistible political crime thriller — all the more remarkable considering that we know the ending before we crack open this 576-page tome. “The Man who Loved Dogs,” beautifully rendered into English by Anna Kushner, is an exhaustively reported work, chockablock with history — from the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism and Stalin's show trials to the steely suffocation of post-Castro Cuba. Indeed, it is Padura's careful reading of Orwell's chronicle of the Spanish Civil War, “Homage to Catalonia,” that animates much of this tragic tale. A global epic set mostly in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow and Mexico City, Padura's novel is grounded in a trifecta of storylines: We have the grim saga of Trotsky's 11-year flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland. This unlikely trio of world-weary cynics shares one passion: a fervid love of dogs. In 1977, while running his Russian wolfhounds, or borzois, a breed that Trotsky loves, Iván serendipitously meets the mysterious Mercader on a beach outside Havana. A carefully crafted web of relationships threaded through Padura's characters drives this complex, sometimes over-written narrative. One unsavory triangle involves Mercader, his sociopathic mother and her Soviet handler, an uber-spy who could have fallen out of a le Carré novel and who is charged with orchestrating the murder of Trotsky. Not only must Trotsky be killed, so must his children, relatives and followers. Moreover, a propaganda campaign worthy of Goebbels is launched to erase Trotsky from Russian history and to depict him as a gutless pervert, secretly aligned with Hitler and the fascists. Never mind that Trotsky was Jewish and that it was Stalin who forged a pact with Hitler. It is during Trotsky's asylum in Mexico City, living in the house of Diego Rivera, that Mercader is deployed into action. Stalin wanted a savage, “spectacular” killing, not just a simple poisoning like the one he ordered for Trotsky's son. More to his liking was the machine-gun siege, led by the mad muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, that Trotsky had miraculously survived. Three months later, on Aug. 20, 1940, Mercader plunges an ice ax into the back of Trotsky's head. Nevertheless, when bodyguards tackle Mercader to the floor, the mortally wounded Trotsky calls out for them to desist, saving his assassin's life: “This man has a story to tell.” Indeed, Mercader did. Yet he never talked during his 20 years in a Mexican prison or in the 18 years thereafter while living in the Soviet Union and Cuba — knowing that to do so would be his own death warrant. Padura opens his story in 2004, long after these events have passed into history. Iván Cárdenas Maturell has just lost his beloved wife to a bone cancer that began with “vitamin-deficient polyneuritis” incurred from subpar food rations throughout the 1990s. His brilliant brother, a doctor tossed out of his profession for being gay, had drowned earlier during an escape attempt. Alone and despondent, Iván reflects on his blighted ambitions and thwarted career. The persecution of Iván for subversive writings is transparently modeled on the collective trials and tribulations of Cuba's post-Revolution writers: the silencing of the great José Lezama Lima, the harassment of Virgilio Pinera and most pointedly, the shaming of Heberto Padilla, who after 38 days of arrest in 1971, read a mea culpa before his peers, condemning himself. It is within this airless, turgid ecosystem, where self-censorship trumps even the state's minders, that Padura has lived and worked. Berated by his wife for not writing his story earlier, Iván confesses, “Fear kept me from writing.” As such, like fellow novelist Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Padura writes along the razor's edge. In his detective novels, he cagily navigated a quasi-permissible space, but in “The Man Who Loved Dogs” (first published in Spain in 2009), he finally lets it rip. Although Fidel Castro is never mentioned by name, his creation — the Cuban revolution — is rendered here as a crumbling tropical gulag. It is a calculated risk by Padura, a keen student of Cuban chess, and one based on the fact that there is a wider opening today than ever before on the island since the revolution. Moreover, as Cuba's greatest living writer and one who is inching toward the pantheon occupied by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Padura may well now be untouchable.' - Washington Post
‘An excellent novel, rich in suggestions about the human condition and about our world that go beyond straight narrative history.' - El Mundo
‘Padura will be most familiar to British readers through his Cuban crime series featuring the disobedient detective, Mario Conde. The Man Who loved Dogs is a work of an entirely different nature – though it does deal with a violent crime. In 1977 a young Cuban writer becomes fascinated by a mysterious stranger walking his dogs on a Havana beach. These animals are Russian wolfhounds. Beautiful canine aristocrats, they were the hunting dogs of the Russian aristocracy. The stranger is no ordinary dog-owner. He has other signs of privilege: amazingly for Cuba, a new car plus an ever-present attendant. The young man, eking out a living as a veterinary assistant, strikes up a curious friendship and when one of the wolfhounds is sick, the owner asks his help in assisting with a merciful lethal injection. It comes as a shock to learn that his new friend, this tender-hearted animal-lover, has committed one of the most notorious murders of all time – the assassination of Trotsky. As the narrator says, it is as if someone has ‘escaped from history' and materialised on a Cuban beach. In 1940 a treacherous friend of Trotsky's household entered his closely-guarded home in Mexico and killed the Russian revolutionary leader with an ice-axe. Few people realise that his murderer, Ramon Mercader del Rio, was a young Spaniard who was eventually welcomed by Fidel Castro to Cuba, dividing the rest of his life between Cuba and Russia till his death in 1978. Padura's book is a massive undertaking, a fictional survey of the terrible history of the struggle between two equally ruthless revolutionaries, Trotsky and Stalin, of the mass murders and show-trials, and of the trusting millions caught up in it. As the author says, it is the tale of ‘how and why the utopia was corrupted'. In Cuba, with a population cut off from uncensored information, the truth was not fully known until the ultimate betrayal by Russia in the 1990s, when much of the population was reduced to starvation. The wolfhounds work wonderfully as a metaphor for old Russia, elegant, superfluous yet somehow compulsively attractive even to hard-line revolutionaries. Trotsky was an animal-lover, travelling with his canine companion, the much-loved Maya, whom he would never abandon. This book is in fact the story of three men who loved dogs: the young narrator, the cold-blooded assassin with his pedigree canines and Trotsky himself. It is this insight into their characters, this glimpse of tenderness within, which redeems the leading personages from being mere historical ciphers, and Padura bestows the novelist's gift of turning them into living human beings for whom one can feel pity and fear. When this novel was published in Spanish five years ago, it received literary acclaim across Europe and rightly so, for it is a monumental work.' - Independent
‘Breathtaking narrative, a masterpiece' - Le Figaro
‘Best historical novel of the year. The assassination of Trotsky with an ice axe as the starting point of one of the best romans noirs about the 20th century.' - Lire
‘Padura is one of Cuba's leading writers, and this massive novel must be his masterpiece; it's a brilliant, multi-layered examination of 20th-century history. It begins in 1940, with the interrogation of the man who has killed Leon Trotsky with an ice-axe. We then leap to 2004 and the funeral of Ivan Maturell's wife, Ana. Back in 1978 Maturell met a strange man on a Havana beach, devoted owner of two Russian wolfhounds, who confessed that he was Ramón Mercader, Trotsky's murderer. The dense, detailed narrative takes in Mercader's childhood in 1920s Spain, where his upper-class mother is a revolutionary addicted to heroin, and Trotsky's long, bitter exile as a “marginalised communist against other communists”. With equal assurance and brio, Padura travels between Stalin's Moscow, the Mexico of Frida Kahlo, and Spain and France in the turbulent years between the wars, to engineer an epic of lost illusions. Magnificent.' - Kate Saunders Times
‘A complex, ever deepening tale of politics and intrigue worthy of Alan Furst and Bolaño. Philosophically charged but swiftly moving. A superb intellectual mystery.' - Kirkus
‘The man who loved dogs, in Cuban author Padura's (Havana Gold) epic novel, is Jaime Lopez, an elderly Spaniard living in '70s Havana who claims to have been a friend of the man who assassinated Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. An accomplished braiding of history and fiction, the novel follows three attenuated strands. The first is the story of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a politically incorrect Cuban writer who befriends the dog-loving Lopez. The second is an account of Trotsky's life in exile, from Turkey and France to Norway, and, finally, Mexico, where he's welcomed by his good friends, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And the third traces the radicalization of Ramón Mercader, who joins the Communist Party in Spain in the '30s and is trained as a Soviet assassin. The novel dramatizes the long, slow collision course of Trotsky and Mercader. It also details Ivan's relationship with Lopez and the ultimate revelation about his identity. Padura's novel encompasses nothing less than a history of international communism after the 1917 Revolution. The story goes from the scorched earth of Spain in the 1930s, to the political hotbed that was Mexico in the 1940s, to Moscow during the Prague Summer of 1968, to Havana from the '70s to the near present, where we learn of Ivan's ultimate ironic fate, leaving the reader with the exhilarating feeling of having just experienced three entire lives.' - Publishers Weekly
‘The Man Who Loved Dogs, by Cuban author Leonardo Padura, is a stunning novel, chronicling the evisceration of the Communist dream and one of the most “ruthless, calculated and useless” crimes in history. Spanning wide tracts of the globe, sweeping through some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century and interweaving the lives of three wildly different characters, this monumental, intricately structured work recounts the events that lay behind the assassination of Lev Davidovich Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940. The narrator of the novel, Iván Cárdenas Maturell, is a disillusioned writer struggling to find love and purpose in Castro's Cuba. One day in 1977 he meets a mysterious man walking two beautiful Russian wolfhounds on a beach outside Havana. As their friendship builds, the author gradually learns the secrets of the dog owner's remarkable life. The man tells the story of Ramón Mercader, a Spanish revolutionary swept up in the passions of his country's civil war who becomes an impersonal “instrument of hate” in the Stalinist cause. To make the world a better place, he is instructed to forget his soul, and he duly obeys. Urged on by his ideologically crazed mother, forced to live apart from the woman of his dreams and to abandon their daughter, he is slowly drained of all personal identity and feeling, as if moulded to Moscow's will. Lost in a labyrinth of lies, all that counts in his life is the revolution's greater good, at least as defined by Stalin. Meanwhile, we track Trotsky's pitiful odyssey from Central Asia to Turkey, Norway and Mexico as the mighty lion of the Great October Socialist Revolution is reduced to a physically enfeebled refugee shuffling between countries embarrassed by his presence. Other exiled revolutionaries are drawn back to the Soviet Union, preferring the certainty of death to “the risk of every day having to demonstrate the courage to live”. Each day that Trotsky remains alive is therefore a small feat of bravery and an act of defiance. As Stalin tightens his grip on the Kremlin, Trotsky is left to fulminate against the “death rattle of utopia” and the revolution's macabre slide towards despotism. Only a liaison with the exotic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo reminds him of the mesmeric personality he once was. Trotsky ends his days a hunted and haunted figure tending rabbits and cacti in a fortified house in Mexico City, fully conscious of the tragic ways in which events are developing, but powerless to prevent the downward spiral into the second world war. The scream of surprise and horror he emits as his skull is smashed by Mercader's ice axe stays with his assassin until the end of his days. It is a measure of Padura's hum¬anity and skill as a novelist that the reader can at times empathise with all three characters despite their cruel actions and manifest flaws. In Padura's telling, to know is to love, or at least to understand. Judgment is suspended as they grapple with their consciences and become reconciled to their fates. In a world in which they are all “embalmed in cynicism”, as one character puts it, the only unconditional affection that any of them can muster is directed towards their dogs. One of the novel's most striking features is the harsh depiction of Castro's Cuba, as a final, dismal coda to the revolutionary hopes of 1917. The narrator is unsparing in his criticisms of the country's moral bankruptcy, “where intelligence, decency, knowledge, and capacity for work gave way before craftiness, proximity to the dollar, political placement, being the son, nephew, or cousin of Someone, the art of making do, inventing, increasing, escaping, pretending, stealing everything that could be stolen. And cynicism, bastard cynicism”. It seems astonishing to the foreign reader that the author of such a critique could have been awarded Cuba's National Literature Prize. But Padura is better known in Havana for his more populist crime series featuring the detective Mario Conde. A recent profile of Padura in the New Yorker suggested that the writer's literary achievement was matched by his political agility, knowing how to trespass right up to the edge of political acceptability without going beyond it. It quotes Padura as saying: “I believe enough space has been achieved for almost everything to be published in Cuba.” But, he added, most Cubans were unaware of most of what was being published. Only about 2,000 copies of The Man Who Loved Dogs were distributed in Cuba and the book was hardly mentioned in the state media. All credit to Bitter Lemon Press and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for publishing such a readable English translation, even if it does contain the odd jarring phrase. There can be few more insightful explorations of the ways in which communism corroded the human spirit and justified the most monstrous of crimes. “I had learned that true human grandeur lay in the practice of kindness without conditions, in the capacity of giving to those who had nothing,” the narrator concludes. We would do well to love our fellow man as Trotsky and his murderer loved their dogs, he seems to suggest.' - Financial Times
MODEST PECULARITIES ‘A world away in tone and scope from Leonardo Padura's popular series of Havana whodunnits, The Man Who Loved Dogs nevertheless centres on "one of the most ruthless, calculated, and useless crimes in history". Taking its title from the Raymond Chandler story of almost the same name, it is perhaps more deeply inspired by Vasily Grossman's masterwork, Life and Fate. Although sometimes too faithful to the original Spanish version (2009), Anna Kushner's translation does Justice to a novel that, like Grossman's, is a prodigious catalogue of war and upheaval, littered with references to fate, and underpinned by the enJoinder to show individual kindness. Principally narrated by the fictional Iván Cárdenas, a failed Cuban writer, the story grows out of conversations with a man Iván first meets in 1977 walking two borzoi dogs on a Havana beach. During subsequent conversations, Iván learns that Jaime López, as the dogwalker calls himself, is dying of a mysterious wasting disease, and hiding a sordid secret. In a plot packed with shifting identities and disguises, López turns out to be Ramón Mercader, the Soviet agent who in August 1940 in Mexico City drove an ice pick into the skull of Leon Trotsky. While reflecting on the years scraping a living as the editor of a veterinary magazine and surviving Cuba's wretched 1990s, Iván narrates the story of his furtive quest to uncover more information about Mercader and Trostsky. In parallel, Padura traces the backstory of the murdered and murderer as fateful protagonists spawned in distant seas - Trotsky the Bolshevik hero turned exile, Mercader the son of a heroinaddicted Barcelona revolutionary - and the eventual convergence of the pair. That the murder, when it comes, still generates suspense is thanks more to Padura's instincts as a noir writer than to the archive of biographical detail in which he sometimes imprisons his plot. While the tale of Mercader maintains its queasy, headlong momentum towards the moment of assassination, the net of Stalinist intrigue that envelops Trotsky is detailed with excessive zeal. For page after page, in the face of yet more minutely chronicled slander, show trials and executions, he often appears trapped in emotional stasis, between the limited poles of dread and impotent rage. Iván himself is perhaps the most successful character of the three: a passionately drawn victim of a Soviet-style bureaucracy, the product of a generation of Cuban writers forced to work as state pen-pushers, "to give a rhetorical form to a non-existent reality, based almost always on words and slogans". While Padura has always been fascinated by disguises and masks, he also seems to see the individual as something inherent, ultimately stable. In old age, with everything he believed in exposed as a murderous pantomime, Mercader plunges back into memories of childhood summers with his dogs on Spain's Costa Brava, a domesticity perverted when his fanatically Stalinist mother shoots one beloved creature with a revolver. Dogs are a recurrent metaphor in this novel:Trotsky likewise betrays a yearning for his effaced origins through a nostalgia for pet dogs, often Juxtaposed with his nostalgia for his Jewish roots. Padura has negotiated an extraordinary tightrope walk as a not-quite dissident writer, winning Cuba's prestigious state National Prize for Literature in 2012. In interviews, he is careful to clarify that his target is the perversion of a utopian ideal. On the writer, and his absolute freedom to write about characters on the frontiers of their individual experience, he is unequivocal. A famous line in Life and Fate could almost be Padura's artistic creed: "The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities". Padura's earlier series of four detective novels, based around the writer-sleuth Mario Conde, unite the writer and detective as mavericks. These figures fly in the face of the Communist detective genre, in which a crime was often solved not by individual genius, but by the collective effort of revolutionary society. In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Iván attempts to understand not only Mercader's hate, but also "the hate of the men who induced him and armed him". The true criminal, he shows, is the perverted revolution itself.' - Times Literary Supplement
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  • Leonardo PaduraReviewThe Man Who Loved Dogs