The Prophet of Sorrow

Written by Mark Van Aken Williams
Review by John Kachuba

In this debut novella Williams writes about an important historical event that is rarely fictionalized—the 1940 assassination in Mexico of exiled Bolshevik Leon Trotsky by a Spaniard named Ramon Mercader, who was working as a Soviet agent. Williams is clearly knowledgeable about Marxism and Communism and the volatile period of Russian history from the Russian Revolution to the rise of Stalin.

The epistolary novella is told through letters, journal entries, and official reports of Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, Mercader, Mercader’s mother Caridad, NKVD agent Leonid Eitingon, and a few other minor characters. This is an interesting device that might allow the characters to express themselves perhaps more fully than they would in dialogue, but it also flattens their individuality. The entries are all written in the same complex, overblown language; no one character speaks in a different voice or a manner unique to his character. It is implausible to propose that Spaniards and Russians would speak in the same voice, or that uneducated characters would sound the same as more intellectual ones and, yet, that is how the entries are presented.

The epistolary format also means that there is precious little action in the novel, other than the first attempted assassination on Trotsky and Mercader’s final success with an ice-axe; both events are covered in only a few pages.

Williams exhibits an impressive vocabulary, but the reader is overwhelmed and often confused by sentences, such as: “Art holds the decipherment to the questions of our lives, because in it, the antipodal points which can confuse us are made conspiratorial.”

In the end, the reader wishes Williams had developed a more thorough, more complex narrative to help support the various verbose epistles.