Redeeming Stalin’s Spanish running dog

“El Hombre que Amaba a los Perros” (“The Man Who Loved Dogs”)
by Leonardo Padura (2011, Tusquets Editoriales, Barcelona; 765 pp)

There are three main dog lovers in this well-crafted reconstruction of the exile and death of Leon Trotsky: Trotsky himself; Ramon Mercader, the Catalonian communist recruited by Moscow to assassinate him, and Ivan, a young Cuban whose literary ambitions have been reduced to sub-editing on a veterinary magazine when, in 1977, he meets the dying Mercader on a beach outside Havana and eventually becomes the reluctant narrator of the assassin’s tale. The narrative manages to generate suspense despite our knowing in advance the sticky end that awaits Trotsky. Equal skill and scrupulous research are brought to the wider, historical canvas, which features ‘live’ excerpts from the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow show trials as well as snapshots of Kruschev-era Russia and the mass exodus of Cuban citizens from that island in the mid 1990s.

Dogs in general and Russian Borzois in particular wag their tails in the margins of this history, symbolizing (or at least recalling) the unquestioning fidelity and obedience demanded by communism (and, indeed, fascism.) At the same time, dog-loving suggests residual capacity for compassion in an era when a theoretical love of humanity so often translated into pitiless murder, with ruthlessness upheld as a ‘necessary’ virtue. Mercader, as portrayed here, is capable of killing a man, even a man he at least half-suspects may be great, but he is incapable of killing a dog. This is not presented as a morally insignificant fact, a mere quirk of his particular nature, much less to show that he is an inhuman monster who cares more for dogs than people: it shows, rather, his redeemable humanity. At least he’s capable of loving something.

The portrayal of Trotsky—who we follow through his eleven years of exile in Turkey, France, Norway and, finally, Mexico—is remarkably sympathetic. He soon repents his own role in laying the foundations for the apparatus of repression which Stalin, the “gravedigger” of communism, went on to perfect. He knows that Stalin is playing with him (like a cat with its prey), allowing him to stay alive only so long as he remains useful as a diversionary hate-figure for ‘the masses’ in Russia and as a pawn in the geopolitics of Europe. The famous exile is shown, repeatedly, as having a dog-like sense of smell when it comes to “sniffing out the political trail” from the clues in Stalin’s words and deeds: he foresees the Russian betrayal of the Spanish Republican cause; the wilful prevention of a broad anti-Nazi front in Germany; the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. He knows, as his children in Russia and abroad are sent to die in labour camps or assassinated by Moscow agents, that there is no escape. He is beaten but struggles on anyway, continuing, as Stalin exterminates all other major Bolshevik players and historical witnesses, to write prolifically about the derailing of the revolution, taking time out only to play with his grandson and dog and, fleetingly, to find respite in nature: fishing in the Bosporus, walking in Norwegian pine forests; collecting cacti in Mexico. This heroic picture is somewhat marred by the love affair with Frida Kahlo, which Pardua has to cover but seems uncomfortable with, managing it less deftly than most of his material.

Turning Ramon Mercader into a sympathetic figure is a more challenging task. The historical record tends to present him, like many of today’s portrayals of ‘Islamic terrorists’, as a one-dimensional fanatic. Padura works hard, and fairly successfully, to construct a more complex and credible character (for the one-dimensional fanatic is seldom credible) whose political passions and susceptibility to indoctrination are welded, at least in part, out of a complex relationship with his “hate-driven” Stalinist mother and an unsatisfactory love affair with a hard-as-nails Stalinette. (This may appear to smack of misogyny but the Stalinist mother, at least, is a matter of historical record. The descendant of Hispanic Cuban gentry, her political activism included attempting to burn down the factories of her bourgeois Catalonian husband.) The resulting, psychological profile is of a lonely man who is both determined to prove himself and eager, dog-like, to please a master. Political analysis is of distinctly secondary importance: in fact Mercader always needs his mother, Stalinette lover or Russian handler to unravel and explain for him the new twists and turns in the Great Pack Leader’s plan for humanity. He believes not because the strategy is plausible but because he needs to believe. In its closing stages the novel’s suspense derives from seeing how easily Mercader’s belief might be ‘turned’ by the personal influence (and more plausible arguments) of his victim, the leader of a shrinking pack, who he comes to know slightly (and, seemingly, to like) through an American Trotskyist woman—again, a ‘real’ historical figure—who Mercader beds, in accordance with Moscow’s plan, in order to gain access to the exile’s inner circle. (One winces to think what happened to that poor woman in later life).

When the ice pick finally falls it is driven not so much by ideological conviction as by Mercader’s feeling that this has, somehow, become his inescapable fate. The novel’s (entirely fictional) narrator, Ivan, ends up similarly ensnared. He has had political and emotional troubles of his own, and for many years is too frightened of challenging the orthodoxies of Soviet-Cuban historiography to set pen to paper; yet he ends up feeling compelled, destined, to write Mercader’s story, which came by chance to him and to no other. Even Trotsky often seems close fatalism: knowing what lies in store, and that it must be this way because no other choice is open to him, so he must accept his martyr’s lot. The transparent irony is that the real-life sense of compulsion and destiny that touches these three men has nothing whatsoever to do with the abstract, Marxist sense of historical necessity.

As literature, the novel needs to evoke sympathy (why else would we keep reading for more than 700 pages?), and it worked for me. Re-encountering Mercader in the dismal Moscow of the 1960s, after 20 years in a Mexico jail, officially a hero but closely watched by security goons, widely shunned by the sad little community of Spanish communist émigrés, only a one-dimensional fanatic could wish him a worse fate, begrudge him his two Borzois (named after places in Catalonia and France that their master can never re-visit), or begrudge him the permission, that finally comes, to go and die in Cuba. Before dying himself, we finally learn, he has to shoot one of the dogs, to save it from the suffering of a brain tumour. This is the redemptive moment, in which Mercader has become capable of mercy killing, not just pitiless murder.

Sympathy, evenly distributed, is of course also central to what Padura wants to say about this slice of history and our reading of it. He framed the novel, he tells us in a postscript, as “a reflection on the perversion of the grand Utopia of the 20th century.” As a moral autopsy of Stalinism, it reveals that the creature had no heart. This is hardly a new insight; but perhaps an act of moral imagination, a ‘fiction’, is required for us to grasp it properly as it recedes into the past. And this holds equally for our often shallow and facile understanding of the extremisms of the present.

Do we learn, here, anything about dogs? Well, they’re easier to love than people, that’s all.

September 14, 2011

PS. I forgot to mention that the International Brigadista and distinguished fabulist of Stalinism, George Orwell, also has a walk-on part here, when Mercader is spying on him in Barcelona. The historical record appears to show that another Englishman, David Crook, in fact did the spying on Orwell, but some accounts say that he, Crook, received espionage training from Mercader. More to the present point, however, is that according to Padura (and I doubt that this a fiction), Orwell kept a pair of Borzois back in England. Interesting, what?