Growing up in a rural part of the Midwest in the 1980s, what I learned about Communism was limited to pop culture caricatures, network news and newspaper coverage, and the scare stories told to me by our school’s civics teachers–walrus-mustached men whose socks always matched their shirts and whose politics leaned far to the right, even for the Reagan era. To say that my awareness, let alone understanding, was lacking regarding the revolutions in Russia, Spain, Cuba, China or anywhere else in the 20th century would be charitable. Mostly what I remember of the sins of Communism were the stories of shortages and lines and the economics teacher’s rant about schools in the Soviet Union having to teach the same centrally-managed lesson plan in every classroom across the entire country, such sins against local self-determination and freedom. I often imagine the invective those men, and the generations of educators who followed them in their political attitude, must growl out when they find the Common Core national curriculum showing up on their desks.
In any case, my education concerning the struggles between then Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the differences between Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism, the distinctions between syndicalist and anarchist, socialist and communist, and the history of the various revolutions in the early twentieth century, remains to this day sorely lacking. Engineering school certainly didn’t add much to my political context, aside from a brief interest in libertarianism that I thankfully outgrew, and despite attending graduate school in an English department populated by leftists of many stripes, including Marxists under varying depths of cover, I found any connection between their views of the world and anything remotely concerned with the practical, daily life of workers, oppressed or otherwise, tenuous at best. But the Berlin Wall fell, glasnost andperestroika vanquished, for a couple of decades, the nuclear-tipped monsters of my teenage years, and eventually even the Chinese started generating billionaires and shopping at Walmart. My comprehension of the socialist revolution and it’s impact on the world remained atrophied, relegated to stupid Yakov Smirnoff jokes and the occasional reminder that Cuba still exists as a land of cheap medical care, Julian Gonzalez and dilapidated 1950s automobiles.
In these matters, at least, I was placed, and through inertia remained, in a state of profound ignorance. Having read Cuban author Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs, I’m afraid I cannot claim too terribly much more of an understanding of the theories of the Revolution, but I may have a bit better model of its practice, particularly during the period when I, like most of my cohort, had willfully forgotten all about the Communists. By the time I finished Padura’s story, I found myself worrying less about understanding the theory and history of Communism and thinking more about the immediate, personal consequences suffered by people for the sins of political zealotry by their leaders and other strongmen.
Padura’s novel follows three narrative strands that sometimes collide violently and other times only glance off each other, but in all cases investigate the immediate, personal consequences of the Revolution’s socialist ideals. Central to each story are men – Red Army leader and exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky, his assassin Rámon Mercarder, and Cuban everyman Iván Cárdenas, who finds himself the recipient of the other two men’s secret histories. Surrounding these three are a cloud of family, friends, enemies, co-conspirators, useful idiots and innocent victims, each of whom serves as an instigator of violent action or suffers as collateral damage of that violence, or sometimes both. Luminaries from early 20th century history – among others, George Orwell, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and, of course, Josef Stalin – make their appearances on the edges of the story (conspicuously absent is any mention of Fidel Castro, an artifact of Padura’s tightrope act career as a novelist in Cuba, I suspect). Closer to these men are their wives, mothers and lovers, portrayed as explicit forces in the main characters’ lives, profoundly influential on the decisions made by these men, and often in possession of uncompromising revolutionary zeal and independence.
Not knowing the intimate history of the Communist Revolution, a full third of the novel is obscure at best and impenetrable at worst. This part of the story follows Leon Trotsky–Lev Davidovich in the narrative–from post to post in his exile from Russia, during which he loses houses, dogs, friends and family, and his influence waxes and wanes, slowly swirling down history’s drain. Large tracts of these chapters read like a history textbook, or an insider’s report on the intrigues of Stalinist Russia, but without much insight into what was at stake beyond the occasional bout of Trotsky’s chest-beating. At some point in these pages, I found myself more interested in whether this history of the man was fictionalized or just appropriated biography than I was in the actual story. If all of this was well-known (among the people who care), then telling it this way would be redundant, as there’s so little narrative drive in it. If this part of the book was synthesized from less detailed information about Trotsky, then I’m unsure if I should find it dubious or treat it as a new vision of the subject. I found myself at a loss regarding how an unfamiliar reader should judge what the story told.
The chapters detailing the life and education and hollowing out of Rámon Mercarder–known also as Soldier 13, Frank Jacson, Jaques Mornard and Rámon Pavlovich–are also steeped in the vocabulary and theory of revolution, but at least Mercader does things besides write letters and bitch about his infirmaries like Trotsky. Granted, it takes two hundred pages of the novel before things really pick up for the assassin, when he’s finally being brainwashed by the Soviets. After that, though, Mercader’s character leads a life that wouldn’t be out of place in a novel by Graham Greene or John Le Carré, with secret identities and a glamorous cover story as a photojournalist in Europe. In between revolutionary skirmishes, secret training missions, and intricately planned bursts of violence, Mercarder is torn at by the women in his life – his stridently revolutionary mother, the even more militant love of his life, the daughter she hides away from him, the homely American socialist he romances to get close to Trotsky, his Soviet-provided wife – and in the end he’s haunted by the part he’s played in a horrible history that might have ultimately accomplished nothing. Again, the question about how much of this hews to reality comes up, but it is less troubling a question here because Mercader’s story is, for all its awful waste, more interesting.
Finally, Padura gives us the story of Iván Cárdenas, a writer in modern-day Cuba who becomes the accidental witness to Mercarder’s–and by proxy, Trotsky’s–story. There’s less narrative drive in this third of the book as well; aside from a bit of intrigue towards the end of his life regarding Mercarder’s legacy, Iván spends his life struggling ineffectually against the bureaucracy and folly of the Cuban government. He’s a failed writer – perhaps a nod by Padura at what could have easily happened to him under the Castro regime–and a semi-fraudulent covert veterinarian, the brother of a disgraced homosexual, a disappointing husband, and ultimately an empty vessel for Mercarder to slowly dump his sins into at the end of his life. In these chapters, Padura depicts life during Cuba’s “special period” in stark terms, with all of the starvation and subsistence living, the crumbling infrastructure and intensified political oppression that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and here is where we are given deeply condemning commentary on the end result of all those decades of political struggle and socialist revolution. Padura’s commentary is subtle, however, and never explicitly blames the Revolution for the pain and suffering that Iván endures. Iván prefers to blame himself for hardships rather than accuse the state, as expected from anyone immersed in the regime, but there is not one character in the novel who does not suffer prolonged hardship and damage as the result of the application of Socialist politics to their life.
Padura adapted the novel’s title from that of a story by Raymond Chandler (one of his–and Iván’s–influences), “The Man Who Liked Dogs.” In that story a detective searches for a girl who has run off with a bank robber and his search uncovers institutional corruption that ultimately erupts in violence with innocent victims (the titular dog). While it would likely be a mistake to draw too fine a correlation between Chandler’s hard-boiled pulp story and Padura’s historical novel, there are definite tropes of the noir (anti)hero written large in all three stories in The Man Who Loved Dogs. Each of the men is forced into untenable positions: Trotsky by his exile, Mercarder by the politics related to Trotsky’s cohort, Cárdenas by the economic consequences of Mercarder’s party. Each of them pursues answers to the questions they’ve asked themselves or have been asked by others until they reach their ruin. All three men are the man who loves dogs, both the four-footed kind as well as the indefensible arguments that propel their lives.