IN 1994, I asked Fidel Castro whether he had seen the film Strawberry and Chocolate, directed by the late, great Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Not only was all of Havana chattering about its stark depiction of life for gays in Cuba in the 1970s, the movie had garnered a slew of prizes, including an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film.
But El Comandante, a micromanager of things great and small, professed not to have seen the film — though he had, he said, “congratulated the filmmakers.”
Castro was quick to add that the Revolution never regarded homosexuals as second-class citizens. “We did not permit persecutions of homosexuals,” he said with compelling conviction. However in 1966, at the very time that thousands of gay people (and others deemed “anti-social”) were carted off to rehabilitation work camps, Castro told journalist Lee Lockwood: “We could never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary.”
I suspect something similar with Leonardo Padura’s monumental epic, The Man Who Loved Dogs. (Published this year in English, it came out originally in 2009 in Spain.) I have little doubt Castro would have been among the first to devour it, but there is little chance that he would ever admit to having read it.
Centered 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, however, stems from knowing that this horrific tale is true, and that almost all its characters are based on real people.
Padura made his name writing an entertaining quartet of Chandleresque detective novels set in Havana, featuring the erudite Lt. Mario Conde. But in The Man Who Loved Dogs, a work of audacious ambition, 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 we know the ending before we crack open this 576-page tome.
A global epic set in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow, and Mexico City, The Man Who Loved Dogs, beautifully rendered into English by Anna Kushner, is an exhaustively reported work, chockablock with history — from the Russian Revolution, through the rise of fascism and Stalin’s show trials, to the steely suffocation of post-Castro Cuba. Padura grounds his work in a trifecta of storylines: we have the grim saga of Trotsky’s 11-year fugitive flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland. His careful reading of Orwell’s haunting chronicle of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, animates much of this tragic tale. The heist of Spain’s national treasury by Stalin’s minions and the capture, torture, and murder of antifascist leaders for being insufficiently pro-Soviet left many democratic hopefuls, such as Orwell and W. H. Auden, utterly disillusioned.
This unlikely trio of world-weary cynics — Trotsky, Mercader, and Cárdenas — share a passion: a fervid love of dogs. In 1977, Cárdenas serendipitously meets the mysterious Mercader (sporting the alias López) on a beach outside Havana, while running his Russian wolfhounds — borzoi — the same breed beloved by Trotsky (and formerly, the coveted pets of the Russian aristocracy).
A carefully crafted web of relationship threaded through Padura’s memorable characters drives this complex, sometimes overwritten, narrative. One unsavory triangle is Mercader, “a man gifted with hate,” his sociopathic mother and accomplice — the absurdly named Caridad — and her Soviet handler and lover, Leonid Eitingon, the bloodless polyglot, uber-spy who could have fallen out of le Carré — and who is charged with orchestrating the murder of Trotsky.
The director stage-managing these assassin-minions is, of course, Stalin, a man who trusts no one. The sole exception, perhaps, is his henchman-in-chief, the nefarious Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) and Eitingon’s boss.
Not only must Trotsky be killed, so must his children, relatives, and his 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 the Führer in 1939. When reminded that half of her claims about Trotsky are aa fiction, Caridad declaims to her son: “Even if it’s a lie, we’ll make it the truth. And that’s what matters.”
It is during Trotsky’s asylum in Mexico City, living in Diego Rivera’s home, the splendid “Casa Azul” in Coyoacán, that Mercader is deployed into action. In one of the numerous splendid and tasty subplots, Padura explores Trotsky’s torrid affair with Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo (whose father was the actual owner of La Casa Azul). Of course, Rivera was juggling his own slate of liaisons, including one with Kahlo’s sister. Nevertheless, it proved to be an unwise indulgence, especially in light of Rivera’s generous hospitality.
After quarreling with his host — ostensibly over politics — Trotsky, his long-suffering wife, and their grandson moved a few blocks away. The new home was heavily fortified with walls and guards. Bereft of illusions about Stalin’s bloodlust, Trotsky knew what was coming. He even penned a potential suicide note; its final lines are a testament to Trotsky’s innate joie de vivre, a quality that must have disgusted the sadistic Stalin. “Life is beautiful,” he wrote just six months before his end. “Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”
In May 1940, the mad muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, under the guidance of Stalin’s agents, led a hapless machine gun siege of the compound — raking the structure with hundreds of bullets. Miraculously, Trotsky and his family survived.
He refortified the property, making a similar attack highly unlikely to succeed, and continued to greet each day with wonder and gratitude. The next attempt, Trotsky wrote presciently to an American magazine, will be by “a lone man, a professional, who [will] come from underground, like a mole.”
Indeed, Eitingon and Caridad had arranged for the dapper Mercader to seduce Sylvia Ageloff, a Brooklyn-born Marxist idealist who became a trusted Trotsky confidante and assistant. On August 20, 1940, Mercader, known by then as Ageloff’s fiancé, glided past security guards into Trotsky’s office. Concealed in the pocket of his raincoat was an ice axe — which he plunged into the back of Trotsky’s head. Stalin had requested a “spectacular” killing, not just a simple poison like the one he ordered for Trotsky’s son two years earlier (and possibly used to eliminate the ailing Lenin, Trotsky believed). Yet when bodyguards tackled Mercader to the floor, it was the mortally wounded Russian revolutionary who called out for them to desist, saving his assassin’s life: “This man has a story to tell.”
Indeed, Ramón Mercader did. Yet he never talked, not during his 20 years in a Mexican prison or in the 18 years thereafter while living in the USSR and Cuba — knowing that to do so would have been his own death warrant.
“When dealing with indecent matters, history can’t stand witnesses,” explains Nikolai Bukharin, one of Stalin’s early star victims, before the tally would reach 20 million Russians. “A million could be a necessity, the other nineteen million are an illness,” rues Eitingon, who, after the death of Stalin, gets tossed in the pokey himself for 15 years.
Fidel Castro is never mentioned by name by Padura, which only augments his presence on these pages. In 1960, just 16 months after assuming power and insisting that he was “not a communist,” Castro granted this most infamous of Stalinist assassins permission to come to Havana. For the rest of his life, Mercader split his time between Moscow and Cuba, preferring the latter. In fact, Mercader, living under an assumed name, was often seen in Miramar, a blue-chip suburb of Havana, running his dogs on the beach. He died of cancer in 1978 in Havana.
At the same time, the name, life, and writings of Leon Trotsky were virtually scrubbed from Cuban history texts.
Padura opens his story with the funeral of Cárdenas’s beloved wife from a bone cancer that began with “vitamin-deficient polyneuritis,” incurred as a result of subpar food rations throughout the “emergency” of the 1990s. Cárdenas’s brilliant brother, a doctor tossed out of his profession for being gay, had drowned earlier during an escape attempt.
The persecution of Iván Cárdenas for “subversive” writings appears to be 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 Piñera, 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.
The suggestion is that the Castro brothers — once ardent admirers of Stalin, who frantically sought to dissuade Gorbachev from instituting perestroika — created their own crumbling tropical gulag. Sort of Stalin lite. 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, Ivan confesses, “Fear kept me from writing.”
At such moments, like fellow novelist Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Padura writes along the razor’s edge. The fact that Padura and Gutiérrez, along with blogger Yoani Sánchez, are able to live in Havana — and not in jail or in exile — speaks to one of the mysteries, and possibly the secret, of the Castros’ 55-year reign.
While “complaining” is well tolerated in Cuba today, taking an action — such as starting a new political party or organizing a demonstration — is not. Indeed, “the complaint” — a veritable verbal art form in Cuba — might well be the Revolution’s safety valve — along with sex and baseball.
In his detective novels, Padura cagily navigated toward a quasi-permissible space, but in Dogs, he finally lets it rip. 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 since the revolution.
Moreover, as Cuba’s greatest living writer, and one who is inching toward the pantheon of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Padura may well now be untouchable.
Ann Louise Bardach is a journalist and author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and Cuba Confidential, and the editor of The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro and Cuba: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.
An abbreviated version of this review ran in The Washington Post Book World.