The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The assassin and his prey…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story of three men whose lives become intertwined across decades and continents, the book primarily tells of the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Its purpose runs deeper though: to look at the corruption and failure of the utopian dream of communism and to inspire compassion for the people caught up in this vast and dreadful experiment.

Iván is a failed writer living in Cuba under Castro. Having inadvertently crossed the regime in his youth, he has lost confidence in his ability to write anything worthwhile that will be acceptable under the strict censorship in force at the time. We meet him as his wife is dying, in the near present. He tells her of a man he once knew, the man who loved dogs, and of the strange story this man told him. His wife asks him why he never wrote the story, and the book is partly Iván’s attempt to explain his reluctance.

The story the man who loved dogs told Iván is of Ramón Mercader del Rio, a young Spaniard caught up in the Spanish Civil War, who is recruited by the Stalinist regime to assassinate Stalin’s great enemy, Trotsky. This introduces the two main strands of the novel which run side by side, with Iván’s story fading somewhat into the background. We follow Ramón through the Spanish Civil War, learning a good deal about that event as we go, and seeing the idealism which drove many of those on the Republican side to believe that the USSR was a shining beacon to the masses of the world. And we meet Trotsky just as he is exiled from the USSR, with Stalin re-writing history to portray him as a traitor to the Revolution.

Leon Trotsky (second right) and his wife Natalya Sedova (far left) are welcomed to Tampico Harbour, Mexico by Frida Kahlo and the US Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman, January 1937.
Getty Images/Gamma-Keystone

This is a monumental novel, both in length and in the depth of detail it presents. I found it fascinating although I felt that huge swathes of it read more like factual history and biography than a fully fictionalised account of events. As regulars will know, I’ve spent much of the last year immersed in the history of the Russian Revolution, and I felt strongly that without all my recently gained knowledge of the politics and personalities, I would have struggled badly both to understand and to maintain my interest in this. I did struggle a bit with all the various factions in the Spanish Civil War, although in the end I was rather clearer about this muddled period of history than I had been before. Once Ramón left that arena to become a tool of the USSR, I felt I was back on more solid ground, however.

Although Padura occasionally refers to some of the atrocities that were carried out by Trotsky or in his name, the overall tone of the book is rather sympathetic to him. This jarred a little – I do see the romantic appeal of Trotsky as a great thinker and orator and a fanatical idealist, but I’m not convinced that he would have been much of an improvement over Stalin had history played out differently and put Trotsky in power. There’s a distinct suggestion that Trotsky’s actions were forgiveable because they were carried out against enemies of the Revolution, whereas Stalin’s crimes were far worse because he turned on those who had fought alongside him to bring the Revolution into being. Firstly, I wasn’t convinced by the historical accuracy of this assessment as it related to Trotsky, and secondly… well, an atrocity is an atrocity, surely, however it’s justified.

Ramon Mercader del Rio after the assassination

Where the book excels, though, is in the pictures it paints of the lives of Trotsky in exile and Ramón being trained, or brainwashed, depending on how you view it, to be his assassin. The Trotsky strand feels very well grounded in truth, with a lot of references to documented events. Trotsky in the book comes over as a man still fixated on the idea of a Marxist revolution, and obsessed with proving his innocence of the charges of treason against him.

His assassin I know nothing about in real life, so can’t say if the same truthfulness applies there. But the Ramón in the book is a fascinating character. We are shown his childhood and relationship with his mother, whose early adoption of communism led her son to take up arms in the Spanish Civil War and introduced him to the Soviet agent who would recruit him. Then we see the brainwashing techniques employed by the Soviets, and Ramón’s life under different identities as a sleeper, waiting for the call to act. True or not, it’s all entirely credible and convincing.

The third story, that of Iván, felt extraneous to me – yet another excuse for a writer to write about the difficulties of being a writer, a subject which seems to be endlessly fascinating to writers but about which I personally have read more than enough. It does however cast some light on life in Cuba under its own communist regime and as such earns its place in the book, even if I sighed a little each time we ended up back in Iván’s company.

Leonardo Padura

The quality of the writing is excellent and for the most part so is the translation by Anna Kushner. There are occasional strange word choices though – sheepherders? Shepherds, surely? – and it uses American spelling and vocabulary – shined, rather than shone, etc. Padura’s deep research is complemented by his intelligence and insight, all of which mean that the book is more than a novel – it’s a real contribution to the history of 20th century communism across the world, looked at from a human perspective. My only caveat is as I mentioned earlier – without some existing knowledge of the history, it may be a struggle to get through. But for anyone with an interest in the USSR, Cuba or the Spanish Civil War, I’d say it’s pretty much an essential read and one I highly recommend.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

31 thoughts on “The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

  1. So glad you liked this one so well, FictionFan. I think Padura is a very talented writer, and he does such a good job of evoking time and place. If you decide you have the time to try his Mario Conde series, I recommend that, too.

    • I’ll certainly try to fit in his other books. Although there was the Cuban strand in this one, it was the least developed of the three, so I’d be keen to read his books that are fully set there. This one seems something of a strange departure for him from his other stuff, but you could tell it was a subject he felt strongly about.

    • Thank you! I only came across it because I’ve been reading so much about the Russian Revolution this year, but I’m glad I did – not the easiest read in the world, but a good one.

    • Ha! I spent part of the afternoon being trolled on Twitter by a bunch of British loons who think Putin is a lovely, warm, innocent chappie! Nice to know Trumpism is alive and well on this side of the Atlantic too… 😉

    • Thank you! Ha – you’ll be glad to know I won’t twist your arm on this one! I enjoyed it, but only because of my current obsession with the Russian Revolution… 😉

    • Hahaha – I was a bit brutal, wasn’t I? But he deserved it… 😉 No, I won’t be doing any arm-twisting on this one – definitely only for Russian Revolution nerds… like me!

    • Definitely ambitious and definitely succeeds! But I suspect I’d have abandoned it if I’d known as little about the USSR as I did about the Spanish Civil War – I could cope with being lost in one section, but not in both, I think…

    • Haha – I know! The more history I read, the more I realise how little I know. This one made me feel I might need to do a Spanish Civil War challenge… Help!! 😉

  2. This sounds fascinating. And the Spanish Civil War might be the hook into it, this end

    Civil War is such a strange title, isn’t it? After you, Senor, no, no, after YOU Senor. Au contraire (or Spanish equivalent) Don Senor, I INSIST you must take precedence.

    After several hours of heated urbanity the two agree to shoot each other simultaneously

    • I’ve never understood the Spanish Civil War and this did help, after I stopped feeling confused! Sadly now I feel I have to know more…

      Ha! Yes, indeed! I don’t think either side was particularly civil in this war – it would have been much better if they’d decided to solve the whole thing with an arm-wrestling contest. Or a flamenco dance-off! Ooh, yes! I’ve always felt flamenco must be a great way of getting rid of pent-up aggression…

    • Yep, it’s beginning to feel very much like the cold war all over again. Let’s hope it stays cold, though! I had no idea Trotsky and Frida Kahlo had an affair – the things you learn in books…!!

  3. Ha, now I DID know that Kahlo and Trotsky had an affair – thanks to a short-lived obsession with Frida! I’m feeling rather less ignorant and lazy now, which is how I was feeling as I read your insightful review and reflected on my own easy-reading habits. And surely wading through tome this has really been all about training and preparation for GwtW? (Bet you’re at least half way through it already…) 😉

    • Well, I’m very impressed because *whispers* until I came across this book I had no idea Trotsky was ever in Mexico, much less that he got assassinated there! Haha – I do love great big heavyweight fiction with a lot of politics – clearly a faulty gene somewhere. 😂 So theoretically GwtW should be right up my street – theoretically. Haven’t started yet – got a few others I need to get out of the way first. But I’m sure it won’t take long to read… *sobs brokenly*

      • You’ll love it! It’ll be over in the blink of an eye. But I won’t mention it again – I can tell the whole experience remains raw… *smiles soothingly and backs off with caution…*

  4. Within the past year I watched that movie about Frida Kahlo starring Salma Hayak. I wasn’t aware until that movie that she helped Trotsky and believed in his cause. It’s funny you mention writers writing about writing. When I was in creative writing programs, everyone was under the impression to write about writing was downright taboo–lazy even.

    • Haha – I didn’t even know there was a movie! It’s rather tragic that I know more about what happened 100 years ago than I do about last year… 🤣 Yeah, it’s another one of my (many) regular rants – it seems to happen more and more often recently. I always want to write to them saying if writing makes you so unhappy, stop and do something else – they’re always looking for sewage workers… 😉

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