In his last novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, the Cuban writer and journalist Leonardo Padura Fuentes tells the story of Ramón Mercader, the man who, with a pickaxe on August 20, 1940, fatally struck the head of Leon Trotski, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s fiercest opponent, and a discreet and cultivated man with a passion for dogs.
Padura read fragments from his new book in a discussion held Tuesday, November 23, in the Blue Heron room of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Considered one of the most talented writers on the Island in our time, the novelist was born in 1955 in the marginal neighborhood Mantilla, in the municipality of Arroya Naranjo, the poorest in Havana and the one with the highest crime rate in the country.
Without a doubt, Leonardo Padura is one of the good ones. And brave. Apart from his agile and sober prose, his novels show a sharp critique of the social situation. Since his first novel, Horse Fever, through his excellent biography of José María Heredia, and his documentary, The Faces of Salsa, made with Rigoberto Lopea, where they interviewed the mythic Celia Cruz, banned by Castro’s government even after her death, the writer of Mantilla has confirmed that he is a heavyweight in the literary world of the Caribbean.
Now he comes to us with a story that tries to get at the foundation of the life of the professional assassin and Soviet spy, Ramón Mercader, who was born to a Cuban mother and, as the author tells us in his book, died on the island at the end of the 1970s.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, the 23rd, there was a party. The small room was packed and afterwards the writer read three passages from his novel and invited the public to ask questions. A pleasant and substantive dialogue was struck up, where Padura, with his narrator’s gift, shared unpublished anecdotes.
Among these was how he came to be interested in the figure of Mercader. He confessed that when he was a student on the Isle of Youth, the son of Trotsky’s murderer was studying at the same school. Years later, in 1989, he had the opportunity to visit Culiacán, México, the house where the murder was committed. “There was a depressing, prison-like and Danteesque atmosphere.” He added that some months after his visit to the crime scene, the Berlin wall fell. And it was then that the doors opened to the beginning of an exhaustive investigation of Ramón Mercader.
But he found barely any facts. Then he had to let his imagination and logic take flight. According to the writer, Stalin, a textbook paranoid, ordered the burning of all the documentation regarding the preparations for the attack on his fiercest rival, Leon Trotski.
Despite the scarcity of information, the author of The Fog of Yesterday, obtained evidence that Mercader studied to be an assassin in the schools of the NKVD, the predecessor of the feared KGB, on the outskirts of Moscow and that after the crime, both Mercader and the official who directed him received the highest decoration of the Soviet State.
Without beating around the bush, during the whole colloquy, Padura made it clear that the perversions and horrors were not only Stalin’s but the Soviet system’s. A young writer who preferred to remain anonymous asked, at the end of the literary conversation, if Leonardo Padura, who in his work often makes none-too-subtle digs at the crisis of values in Cuban society, is paving the way to write his masterpiece on the figures and events of the Cuban Revolution.
Looking at his round, mixed-race face, adorned with a well-trimmed incipient beard, and with a voice tailor-made for storytelling, it seemed that his most important book is about to be written. We hope to hear good things from Leonardo Padura Fuentes.