The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura; book review

Trans. Anna Kushner;

Jane Jakeman
Friday 14 February 2014 01:00 GMT

Padura will be most familiar to British readers through his Cuban crime series featuring the disobedient detective, Mario Conde.

The Man Who loved Dogs is a work of an entirely different nature – though it does deal with a violent crime. In 1977 a young Cuban writer becomes fascinated by a mysterious stranger walking his dogs on a Havana beach. These animals are Russian wolfhounds. Beautiful canine aristocrats, they were the hunting dogs of the Russian aristocracy. The stranger is no ordinary dog-owner. He has other signs of privilege: amazingly for Cuba, a new car plus an ever-present attendant. The young man, eking out a living as a veterinary assistant, strikes up a curious friendship and when one of the wolfhounds is sick, the owner asks his help in assisting with a merciful lethal injection.

It comes as a shock to learn that his new friend, this tender-hearted animal-lover, has committed one of the most notorious murders of all time – the assassination of Trotsky. As the narrator says, it is as if someone has ‘escaped from history’ and materialised on a Cuban beach.

In 1940 a treacherous friend of Trotsky’s household entered his closely-guarded home in Mexico and killed the Russian revolutionary leader with an ice-axe. Few people realise that his murderer, Ramon Mercader del Rio, was a young Spaniard who was eventually welcomed by Fidel Castro to Cuba, dividing the rest of his life between Cuba and Russia till his death in 1978.

Padura’s book is a massive undertaking, a fictional survey of the terrible history of the struggle between two equally ruthless revolutionaries, Trotsky and Stalin, of the mass murders and show-trials, and of the trusting millions caught up in it. As the author says, it is the tale of ‘how and why the utopia was corrupted’. In Cuba, with a population cut off from uncensored information, the truth was not fully known until the ultimate betrayal by Russia in the 1990s, when much of the population was reduced to starvation.

The wolfhounds work wonderfully as a metaphor for old Russia, elegant, superfluous yet somehow compulsively attractive even to hard-line revolutionaries. Trotsky was an animal-lover, travelling with his canine companion, the much-loved Maya, whom he would never abandon.

This book is in fact the story of three men who loved dogs: the young narrator, the cold-blooded assassin with his pedigree canines and Trotsky himself. It is this insight into their characters, this glimpse of tenderness within, which redeems the leading personages from being mere historical ciphers, and Padura bestows the novelist’s gift of turning them into living human beings for whom one can feel pity and fear. When this novel was published in Spanish five years ago, it received literary acclaim across Europe and rightly so, for it is a monumental work.

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