A dialectic of decisions and doubts - Book Review

El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura) is a novel of astonishing breadth and depth and a testament to years of detailed research. The major historical developments of the 20th century, the rise of Stalin, the outbreak of the Spanish civil war and the politics of the Second World War are skilfully interwoven with the destinies of its two key figures: Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramón Mercader. From the perspective of each of these men Padura immerses the reader in the complex political dynamics and contradictions of their times in a narrative of just over 750 pages that is rarely less than fascinating.
Yet this book is as much a detailed study of the psyche of a condemned man and his executioner as it is a political-historical novel. Padura takes us right into the minds of Trotsky and Mercader as their respective lives inch forward to the moment when the ice pick is brought down. This moment is the carefully crafted culmination of a personal dialectic of decisions and doubts, which reveals both men to be at once authors of their destiny was well as puppets responding to larger forces. This is where the pathos of the novel lies, in the sense of inevitability, of doomed lives.
While it is true that El hombre que amaba a los perros is very much a “chronicle of death foretold” in that we are familiar with the ending, the author manages to build and sustain suspense around not what eventually happened, but how it happened. This is where the novel excels, in its detailed portrayal of the events leading up to the moment of the assassination in Mexico. The account of the weeks, days and hours prior to Trotsky’s death at the hands of Mercader is nail-bitingly tense at times, to the extent that the reader is fearful of turning the page yet compelled to do so by the power of the narrative.
The compulsion is maintained even after Trotsky’s death. Questions as to Mercader’s final destiny must be answered and drive the reader on a further hundred pages.  There is curiosity too about Iván, the fictitious Cuban narrator of the novel who develops an acquaintance with Mercader during a series of encounters on a beach outside Havana, in the years before the assassin’s demise.  Like Trotsky and Mercader, he too meets his death. Iván’s end is symbolic, in a ruined house, in a ruined city (Havana) and amidst ruined dreams. Unlike Trotsky and Mercader, he is the true, blameless victim of El hombre que amaba a los perros.
At times the author has a tendency, which is not always appropriate, to use the narrative to indulge his deep anger at totalitarian regimes. Padura has more than a few grudges against authoritarian rule, most of them born out of first hand experience in his home country, Cuba, where he still lives. In the final pages he makes a plea on behalf of the tragic victims of history, manipulated by “superior forces”, and condemns Trotsky and those like him, whose fanaticism brought about what he calls a “perverted utopia.” This, I believe, is the real tragedy, the wasted historical opportunities to build a more just society and the countless lives sacrificed for perverted ideals.
El hombre que amaba a los perros is a novel that I highly recommend for anyone with an interest in history and history-making figures.

El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man who Loved Dogs) is, to my knowledge, not available in English. Publication: Colección Andanzas, 2009.