The Man Who Loved Dogs
My generation owes a debt of gratitude to The Stranglers for introducing us to the name of Leon Trotsky.
In No More Heroes, Hugh Cornwall snarled: ‘Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky/He got an ice pick/That made his ears burn.’
Of the many political assassinations in the last century, that of Trotsky in his Mexican hideout on the eve of World War II, remains the most up close and personal, though, to his credit, Cuban Leonardo Padura avoids the temptation to be graphic in his sprawling 576 page novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs.
If Brutus was prepared to deliver the fatal blow to Caesar, not because he loved him less but that he loved Rome more, the same cannot be said of Padura’s anti-hero, Ramon Mercader, whose quest to murder Trotsky simmers like a saucepan of milk on the back burner.
With Mercader, death will have its dominion at any price.
The Man Who Loved Dogs is a fictional-factual hybrid, an ambitious and meandering revisiting of the nebulous and paranoid world of espionage before and after the Spanish Civil War, when the fascist and communist monoliths of Germany and the USSR were planning to carve up Europe.
With a cast list longer than Roots, The Man Who Loved Dogs flitters between the present – Cuban writer Ivan Cardenas Maturell hooks up with an older Mercader and his two Russian wolfhounds in Havana in 1978 – and the past, Trotsky’s enforced exile in Mexico City in 1940, and the achingly slow countdown to his assassination.
We are familiar with the Man With No Name, now meet the man with too many: Mercader and his associates within the KGB have several aliases (Mercader was known as Jacson to Trotsky and Jacques Mornard to the Mexican police) which Padura exchanges at will, but not with the same clarity as John Le Carre, and as such you have to unweave the tapestry to remind yourself of who’s who.
With Joycean long sentences and numerous walk on roles (Frida Kahlo), The Man Who Loved Dogs, with an almost encyclopedic explanation of the polarity between Trotsky and Stalin, and a Google-like fidelity to the description of streets in New York and Paris, is a patient read, and though the temptation is always there to skip the political sermonising, stick with it.
Unfortunately, Padura’s depiction of Ramon Mercader concludes sympathetically, but in reality he was an unrepentant and ruthless Stalinist sycophant, who ingratiated himself with an ageing but hospitable Trotsky and, with his guard down, buried an ice pick into the back of his head. One finished the book suspecting that Padura’s empathy lies with his multidimensional Mercader, and not the one dimensional Trotsky, which is not so easy to fathom.