It took me aaaaages (three months) to read El hombre que amaba a los perros and about the same time to get my act together and finally write the review. While you might think that this is a bad sign, the problem is actually the other way round: I liked the book so much that I didn’t know how to do it justice in this review.
My edition of El hombre que amaba a los perros clocks in at 765 pages, so I didn’t take this brick of a book anywhere and read it mostly in bed at night, which explains why it took me so long. It’s also quite complex, so I could write a lot, but I’m going to try and keep it fairly short.
There are, essentially, three narrative strands: the first is the framework narrative, centred on Iván. He’s a Cuban who initially aspires to be a writer, but he has an early and unfortunate run-in with the regime and its censorship, so he ends up living a miserable life as a wannabe vet. His story is intertwined with that of a mysterious stranger whom he meets on the beach one day, noticing the man because he is walking two beautiful dogs. The stranger tells him the story of Ramón Mercader, the man who assassinated Leon Trotsky, with Mercader’s story becoming the second narrative strand. The third and final one is the story of Trotsky himself.
I loved how Padura slowly has Mercader and Trotsky draw closer and closer to each other until they eventually and inevitably become intertwined. He traces Trotsky’s drifting from exile to exile, from Turkey through France and Norway to Mexico. Likewise, he traces Mercader’s ever-growing involvement with the Soviet secret service.
I think Padura’s great achievement lies in making the reader empathise with both of them, even though Mercader sometimes comes off as riddled with complexes and, I’m sorry to say, a bit dim-witted and easily exploited. The climax, of course, is the point at which Mercader shoots Trotsky, a point at which I could no longer say whose “side” I was on. I think part of Padura’s point is that the story is much too complex for sides. As a result, I found myself fearing for Trotsky’s life on the one hand, while at the same time becoming more and more invested in Ramón Mercader’s character in the run-up to the assassination.
In some ways, El hombre que amaba a los perros reminded me of another ‘historical novel’ from 2009 (there seems to have been a streak in the Spanish-speaking world), Anatomía de un instante. Both work within a framework of historical events, although Padura’s novel is much more novelesque than Javier Cerca’s Anatomía. Padura takes more liberties and is much better at filling his characters with life than Cercas, who was too obsessed with minutiae for my liking. Of course, since El hombre… spans several decades, while Anatomía… dissects one day in Spanish history this is completely intentional, personally I enjoyed El hombre que amaba a los perros a lot more.
I have to say that I was very surprised about the frankness with which Padura is able to write about Cuba and especially about the miserable period (hunger and malnutrition included) the Cuban population went through after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even though he doesn’t criticise the socialist project as such – at least I don’t remember having read such passages – he is quite vocal in his criticism of the Cuban government. I’m not sure why he is able to do this while other critical intellectuals face considerable problems. Can anyone enlighten me?
I would highly recommend El hombre que amaba a los perros. It is historically well-researched (apparently Padura spent five years learning about Trotsky and Mercader) and highly readable despite its length and the aforementioned historical accuracy. Even though it took me three months, at no point did I get confused by the details or feel like giving up.
English title: There doesn’t appear to be a translation at the moment. Correct me if I’m wrong.
German title: Der Mann, der Hunde liebte