[Marxism] Trotsky’s Pursuer Finds a Pursuer to Call His Own

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jan 22 07:33:46 MST 2014

(What a coincidence. The second novel about the assassination of Leon 
Trotsky published recently.)

NY Times JAN. 21, 2014
Trotsky’s Pursuer Finds a Pursuer to Call His Own
‘The Man Who Loved Dogs’ Centers on Trotsky

By Leonardo Padura
Translated by Anna Kushner
576 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $35.

If Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” turned the 
romance novel into literature, and Mario Vargas Llosa, with 
“Conversation in the Cathedral,” applied French 1950s nouveau roman 
techniques to the political thriller, the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, 
known for detective thrillers, has made his entrance to the Latin 
American Modernist canon by writing a Russian novel.

“The Man Who Loved Dogs,” published in Spanish in 2009 and now appearing 
in an English translation by Anna Kushner, tells the story of the exile 
of Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and the Soviet people’s 
commissar for foreign affairs, who was assassinated in Mexico on Aug. 
20, 1940. Its Russian quality comes not only from its length — almost 
600 pages — and the fact that it returns constantly to Moscow, but also 
from its Tolstoyan passion for historical trifles and Dostoyevskyan 
pleasure in examining the moral life of its characters.

In the summer of 1940, someone identified as a Belgian named Jacques 
Mornard infiltrated Trotsky’s inner circle and, during a visit to his 
house in Mexico City, sank an ice pick into Trotsky’s head. Despite 
having just had a hole punched in his skull and half of his brain 
perforated, Trotsky — a survivor of Siberia — knocked down, subdued and 
disarmed his assassin. And then he collapsed.
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Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

Mornard spent the next 20 years in a Mexican prison. In the 1950s, the 
Mexican police discovered his real identity: His name was Ramón 
Mercader. He was Spanish, and he’d been trained by the K.G.B.

Mercader’s story is worthy of the wildest espionage thrillers. He was 
transferred to Moscow from Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. Once 
there, he was transformed into an ideal Belgian. He was sent to Paris so 
he might seduce Trotsky’s confidante, the New Yorker Sylvia Ageloff. 
Then he was shipped off to New York, with a Canadian identity, and, from 
there, he established a phantom company in Mexico City, where he finally 
accomplished his task.

After serving his 20-year sentence, Mercader returned to a hero’s 
welcome in the Soviet Union. There he married the Mexican Stalinist who 
had been his link with the K.G.B. during his imprisonment, and he lived 
until his early 70s in a luxurious building overlooking Gorky Park. He 
spent his last years in Cuba, where he died in 1978.

“The Man Who Loved Dogs” recounts Mercader’s life in counterpoint to the 
cat-and-mouse game that Stalin played with Trotsky from the moment 
Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party in 1927 until his murder. 
And it was a cruel game: Even as his agents closed in for the dramatic 
ice pick checkmate, Stalin permitted himself the luxury of keeping 
Trotsky alive long enough to learn about the murders of most of his 
children and many other relatives.

In addition to the parallel stories of Mercader and Trotsky, “The Man 
Who Loved Dogs” has a third voice, a Cuban one. Iván Cárdenas is a 
frustrated writer whose life explodes when, in 1976, walking on the 
beach, he meets an exiled Spaniard who may be Ramón Mercader. Through 
him, Iván, once kept in the dark by the Cuban government’s policy of 
“programmed ignorance” for its citizens, learns about 20th-century 
history, reads Orwell and Trotsky and becomes aware of the horrors of 
the Stalinist era.
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Leonardo Padura Itziar Guzman/Tusquets Editores

Mr. Padura’s novel tells this triple story without ever abandoning the 
general conventions of fiction. More concerned with the emotional life 
of its characters than with their historical roles, the novel still 
imparts a sense of reality, thanks to its deft handling of an 
astonishing quantity of information about Trotsky and Mercader’s lives. 
This doesn’t impair the book but it does make it a serious reading 
project: There is an almost courtroom rhythm to Mr. Padura’s 
storytelling, as if an urgent need to offer evidence had overwhelmed his 
ability simply to present the macabre dance between the victim and his 

The three alternating stories resonate with one another, acquiring 
deeper meaning as they paint the complete fresco of a political 
paradigm’s downfall. Mr. Padura suggests that his three main characters, 
though playing very different roles, end up victims of the machinations 
of a system that discards them when they stop being useful. All three 
love dogs, and all three have endured claustrophobic restriction verging 
on imprisonment. Each concludes that his loyalty to Marxist ideas has 
transformed him into a ghost. And each, in his unhappiness, confesses 
and incriminates himself.

“Orwell’s futurist and imaginative fable ‘1984’ ended up turning into a 
starkly realistic novel,” Iván Cárdenas says. “And there we were, 
without knowing anything ... Or is it that we didn’t want to know?” 
Trotsky accepts that “when blinded by the glitter of politics,” he was 
“incapable of understanding the difference between circumstantial and 
permanent” to the point of ignoring “the most human values.” As for his 
part, Mercader says, “I was a cynic,” he says, “a puppet, a wretch.”

In the context of a plot that revisits the grim mockery of Stalin’s show 
trials, these acts of compulsive self-incrimination are not only loaded 
with significance but are also — given that Mr. Padura is a Cuban author 
writing in Cuba — charged with an additional layer of meaning.

Fidel Castro’s most scandalous show trial was not mounted against a 
political figure but against a writer: Heberto Padilla. In 1971, after 
38 days of detention, Mr. Padilla was forced to “confess” at the Cuban 
writers’ union to the charges of “subversive activities.” He had 
published a book of poems faintly critical of the regime.

I don’t know if all this self-incrimination is part of the novel because 
Mr. Padura wants to make the point that in Cuba, writing is an activity 
fraught with fear, or because it is the involuntary reflex of someone 
who has awaited the day of his own political trial. In any case, it 
stands as a clear register of the author’s circumstance: Cuba may be the 
last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.

Ms. Kushner’s rendering of the novel in English brilliantly demonstrates 
her loyalty to the author’s voice. She nudges the English to give it a 
Cuban tone, respectful of the brutal efficiency of Mr. Padura’s Spanish, 
while never sacrificing the lyrical flourishes with which he 
occasionally bedazzles his readers.

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