Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs arrives in English translation already heralded as a historically significant work. Padura, the most successful Cuban novelist who has chosen to remain in the country, has become one of the foremost interpreters of life on the island today. “For Cuba’s intellectuals, and for its professional class, a new Padura book is as much a document as a novel, a way of understanding Cuban reality,” wrote Jon Lee Anderson in a New Yorker profile last October. But the impact of The Man Who Loved Dogs, which was published in Cuba in 2009 and is now being released in English, has been particularly seismic. Padura’s most explicitly political work to date, the novel recounts the assassination of Leon Trotsky, exposing the high crimes of Stalinism and the dismal, repressed lives of Padura’s own Cuban generation. As the dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote, “Of all the books published on this Island, I dare say that none have been as devastating to the pillars of the system as this one.”
Praise like that might signal either a masterpiece of world literature or a self-consciously important work. The Man Who Loved Dogs is neither. Padura is best known as the creator of Mario Conde, a bookish detective whose exploits fill the four novels of the Havana Quartet, and good old-fashioned storytelling is one of his sharpest skills. The Man Who Loved Dogs is a more ambitious effort, but it’s still a yarn, weaving together three distinct narratives, each told in a different style. There is a dutiful chronicle of Trotsky’s exile; a crackling spy caper about the training of Trotsky’s Catalan assassin, Ramon Mercader; and the first-person account of a persecuted Cuban writer named Iván, who hears Mercader’s saga from a mysterious Catalan man on a Havana beach.
A novel with this much going on risks inconsistency, and Padura’s Trotsky sections are a slog. The result of deep research, these parts are overstuffed with names and events, gummed up by impenetrable historical context, and too cautious in their portrait of the man himself. Trotsky spends pages upon pages fretting over the political fate of his followers and enemies, many of whom are, at least for a lay American reader, difficult to distinguish. Trotsky, meanwhile, has all the liveliness of a textbook subject. His actions are over-explained; his emotions are described, not shown; and his predicament is repeated ad nauseam. “He didn’t have any power, he didn’t have millions of followers, nor did he have a party,” Padura writes late in the book. None of this has changed since page 1. We get the point.
The novel’s two other narrative threads have far more brio. Mercader’s story, which gives us a portrait of Trotsky’s assassin as a young man and is also based firmly in history, practically explodes off the page. We meet his mother, Caridad, a monstrous Party operative who, in the opening pages, shoots a friendly dog to prove the depths of her seething devotion to Stalinist orthodoxy. More sympathetic is Mercader’s mentor, the Soviet agent Leonid Eitingon, a real-life super-spy who nonetheless seems modeled on John Le Carre’s elusive villain Karla, a boundlessly capable spook with a trademark chain-smoking habit and an ability to assume virtually any identity and nationality as he shadows his charge across Europe and the Americas. Eitingon is a profoundly amoral Stalin confidante, but in this world, he’s as close as we get to an authorial conscience. As a Jew, he’s aware of his perilous outsider status in Communism’s inner sanctum, and he knows too much to buy into hollow party rhetoric. “I see that you’ve been stuffed with slogans,” he tells Mercader after the younger man finishes a bout of Soviet training. “You can save them when you’re with me.”
Mercader’s story is vigorous historical fiction, but the book’s soul lies firmly in the Cuban sections, primarily set in Havana during the Gray Years of 1970s. The Man Who Loved Dogs takes its title from the Raymond Chandler short story “The Man Who Liked Dogs” (in a quirk of translation they share the same name in Spanish but have diverged in English), and in the Cuban sections, Padura hits his Chandler-esque register of pulp poetry. He’s plainly at home in Iván’s voice. The writing is noirish without falling into parody and elusive enough to maintain a lasting sense of mystery.
Stories are dangerous. Identities are dangerous. Truth is dangerous. Padura bludgeons us with these maxims, but in the Cuban section, he makes them vital, showing what it’s like when these abstractions are a concrete source of terror. The assassination of Trotsky, an act Padura calls “one of the most ruthless, calculated, and useless crimes in history,” drives the plot, but it’s not the source of the book’s suspense. Who has the truth, who will reveal it, and who will have the courage to speak it—those are the crucial questions. The characters in The Man Who Loved Dogs want to tell their stories, but are residents of a paranoid and oppressive world, so they can’t tell the truth without masking it with evasiveness and subterfuge. Padura is writing in a more humane time, but it’s still a mark of bravery that he decided to put his name on the cover.
Eric Benson is a journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work has been published in New York, the Oxford American , and the New York Times Book Review.