An Ice-Axe in Mexico

scan0033With his epic new novel The Man Who Loved Dogs, Leonardo Padura [translated by Anna Kushner] has woven a tale of complicated loyalties, obedience and love at the time of Communism. The reader is caught in the tentacles of history, many of the characters are historical: The Exile, The Grave Digger of the Revolution, The Assassin and many others; a few who are based on historical characters have more than one identity, as does the killer and then there are the fictional characters, the narrator, Ivan and his pupil/amanuensis Daniel and finally the author himself.

It is no secret that here we are dealing with the death of Trotsky. Written about twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when some of the more revealing papers became available and the excesses of Communism became common knowledge, this masterpiece of writing covers the lives of several people: Iván Cárdenas Maturell, Lev Davidovich Trotsky and Ramón Mercader del Rio all feature in this novel, as do their masters, wives, lovers and friends. The first one is the narrator, the latter two are historical.

The construction of the novel follows each character chronologically, but this means that something that has taken place in the section on Trotsky, has not yet taken place in the life of his assassin, until that is – his narrative catches up. Furthermore, the narrator is telling this from the point of view of hearsay, some 37 years after the main event: 20 August 1940, the day the assassin struck Trotsky on the head with an ice axe.

The reader needs a grasp of the background, but it does not a require a comprehensive knowledge of the time to fully appreciate the depth and mastery of this novel. More background knowledge obviously enhances the experience, but without labouring every point, Leonardo Padura gives enough historical perspective to fill in any gaps.

One should not beat about the bush: Trotsky rose to power on the bloody corpses of many Russians – Mensheviks, striking miners, mutinying soldiers and sailors of the Komosol and also his opponents, but he did it at a time when the Revolution was on a knife edge; he fell ignominiously from power with the rise of the Great Helmsman, the Georgian Man from the Mountains – Josef Stalin. But the deaths than ensued were not merely political or mistakes (though there were many of those) but revenge killings.

How many more was Stalin going to kill? Natalia asked him [Trotsky] one night as they drank coffee in their room, and he offered his response to her: as long as there remained one Bolshevik with the memory of the past, the henchmen would have work. The war to the death was no longer against the opposition but against history. To do it right, Stalin had to kill all those who knew Lenin, and those who knew Lev Davidovich, and, of course, those who knew Stalin…He had to silence all those who had been witnesses to his failures, to the genocide of the collectivization, of the murdering madness of his work camps…and then he would still have to remove from the world those who had helped annihilate the opposition, the past, history, and also annoying witnesses…

The novel covers one of the most turbulent periods of the twentieth century. The Spanish Civil War had just begun, aided by Russia for the time being, Fascism was on the rise in Italy and Germany, the Reign of Terror was in full swing in Stalinist Russia – the show trials and denunciations went on from the beginning of the 1930s through to the beginning of the Second World War; one of Stalin’s most controversial political decisions (the pact with Hitler) arose from the necessity of buying some time because Stalin had just ordered the execution of 136 top ranking members of his military command plus a number of others implicated through his paranoia about conspiracy. Stalin literally had no one to lead the army.

Lev Davidovich Trotsky, the Exile, is already on his way at the beginning of the book, banned from returning to Russia and eventually stripped of his citizenship, he is convicted many times in absentia, we follow him and Natalia Sedova, his wife, on their wretched journey through Turkey, France, Norway and finally to Mexico, where in spite of political opposition he is welcomed by the Prime Minister Lázaro Cárdenas, and allowed to live with Diego Rivero and Frida Kahlo at La Casa Azul.

The man selected to assassinate Trotsky came from the Republican side in the Spanish War, plucked more or less at random, Ramón Mercader del Rio is retrained and brainwashed to become a merciless killer, a Belgian called Jacques Mornard; a killer whose background cannot be linked in any way to Russia. In the novel he has many names and many disguises, that he actually survived is a testament to the efficacy of his brainwashing and his will, since after the assassination he spent 28 years in a Mexican jail. His mentor: Kotov, Grigoliev, Andrew Roberts, Leonid and a host of other personalities remains a strong, subtle and ambiguous character throughout the narrative. We follow their twin narratives all the way back to Russia, even beyond the Stalin era when they are permitted to meet again.

The narrator and his amanuensis live in Cuba, and how he came into possession of this complex and thrilling story is an engrossing part of the novel.

But this is more than an historical novel. It is a lament, a lament for the lost ideal; for the lies and distortions of a system that should have benefited the people and ended up oppressing them; an anguished cry for lost illusions. It is also a cry for Cuba, a country so insulated from the outside world, so controlled from Moscow that the death of Trotsky barely figured in the national consciousness, indeed the narrator barely even knew who Trotsky was. This is a complex, intriguing, multi-layered stew of politics and the human condition, full of contradictions and love; especially of borzois, the elegant and fierce Russian wolfhound. It is spiced with the heat of Cuba, the passion of Spain and the cold-heartedness of Stalin.

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