“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.
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.
Bardach is a journalist and author of “Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington” and “Cuba Confidential” and editor of “Cuba: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.”
THE MAN WHO LOVED DOGS
By Leonardo Padura
Translated from Spanish by Anna Kushner
Farrar Straus Giroux. 576 pp. $35