The Man Who Loved Dogs

Written by Anna Kushner (trans.) Leonardo Padura
Review by James Hawking

Three men who loved dogs play major roles in this novel about the assassination of Leon Trotsky. A Cuban veterinary magazine editor meets an old man walking two borzois. He finds that the man is suspiciously knowledgeable about the life of Ramon Mercader, the man who had murdered Trotsky some years previously. Chapters alternate between the Cuban, Trotsky, and Mercader with his many aliases.  Under the influence of a Stalinist mother and an equally committed Communist woman friend, Mercader begins training as an assassin, directed by an agent whom he meets during the Spanish Civil War. The Trotsky chapters follow him into exile in Turkey to Norway to France and finally to Mexico, while he remains the leader of the anti-Stalinist opposition. Trotsky has occasional doubts when he reflects on his own totalitarian actions, but he remains faithful to the idea of a Communist society.

The Cuban sections are surprisingly frank about the economic failures and the homophobia of the Cuban revolution, considering that the author still resides in Cuba. Trotsky is a broken old man in the process of losing his allies and his family to Stalin’s vengeance, but he still has enough energy to conduct an affair with the wife of Diego Rivera, the man who gave him a home. The most striking sections are those which show Mercader’s training and his complete submission to the Stalinist cause. When challenged to kill a smelly beggar, he dutifully knifes him. When ordered to make love to a woman he considers ugly in order to get close to Trotsky, he again does his unpleasant duty. All events build toward the dramatic moment when he splits Trotsky’s skull with an ice axe.