Tag Archives: Cuba

Utopian dreams: a post-mortem

In August 1940 Leon Trotsky, one of the architects of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, was assassinated in Mexico City, where he lived in exile. It was the second attempt on his life in less than three months. The assassin, Ramón Mercader del Río, was a Spanish Communist whose orders came directly from Joseph Stalin.

Stalin had banished Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1928, but Trotsky continued to write harsh criticism of the revolution’s direction under Stalin’s increasingly tyrannical regime. In 1936, in one of Stalin’s first show trials, a Soviet tribunal tried Trotsky in absentia for treason along with sixteen other high-ranking Bolsheviks arrested by the secret police. All were sentenced to death and all but Trotsky were summarily shot.

Four years later, in Mexico, Mercader, who claimed to be a Belgian named Jacques Mornard but also used a Canadian passport with the alias Frank Jacson, gained Trotsky’s trust by forming a relationship with his secretary. On August 21, while Trotsky worked at the desk in his library, Mercader plunged a sawed-off ice ax into Trotsky’s skull. Despite the blow Trotsky lived until the next day. Mercader, who was apprehended by Trotsky’s bodyguards at the scene, spent the next twenty years in a Mexican prison.

Trotsky's study as it was on the day he died. Photo: Museo Casa de León Trotsky

Trotsky’s study as it was on the day he died. Photo: Museo Casa de León Trotsky

From these bare facts Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura has written a fine historical novel that is Russian in scale, spanning much of the 20th century’s experimentation with Communist utopias. The Man Who Loved Dogs begins in post-revolutionary Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Iván Maturell, a self-censored writer who works as a proofreader for a veterinary magazine, tells how he met a mysterious Catalan with two Russian wolfhounds on a beach outside Havana in the late 1970s. Over the next few years, in intermittent encounters, the eponymous man who loved dogs relates the life story of Trotsky’s assassin.

22474310In alternating chapters Padura moves three separate stories forward until they collide: that of Trotsky’s wandering exile from Kazakhstan to Turkey and Norway and finally to Mexico, where the Communist painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo persuaded Mexico’s leftist president, Lázaro Cárdenas, to accept the unwanted revolutionary; that of Mercader’s journey from the trenches of the Spanish Civil War to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges, then to France and Mexico in pursuit of his target; and finally, that of his depressed narrator, Iván Maturell, who occupies the terrible days of economic crisis in Cuba after the Soviet collapse with his compulsive desire to uncover the truth about the story the man on the beach told him.

Padura spent over ten years conceptualizing, researching and writing this novel, and it shows. The book breathes life into the character of Trotsky—a zealous, ruthless revolutionary who rues the destruction of his life’s work at Stalin’s hands. It makes real the transformation of a young, unthinking ideologue-soldier into a hardened assassin of Stalin’s secret police. And it is rich in describing the complex political currents facing Europe in the 1930s as two violent ideologies—Fascism and Communism—ripped Spain apart.

Today, the house where Trotsky lived in Coyoacán—an affluent suburb of Mexico City—is a museum. Trotsky’s study has been left much the way it was on the day he died, with his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, pages of correspondence and books in Russian and other languages on the table. Outside, in a courtyard garden surrounded by high walls  and protected by a guard tower and steel doors, a stone monument bearing a hammer and sickle marks Trotsky’s grave.

Trotsky's ashes lie beneath a monument in the garden of the house in Coyoacán. In the background, the guard house on the walls that failed to protect him. Photo credit: Museo Léon Trotsky.

Trotsky’s ashes lie beneath a monument in the garden of the house in Coyoacán. In the background, the guard house on the walls that failed to protect him from his enemies. Photo credit: Museo Casa de Léon Trotsky.

When I visited the museum on a cloudy, humid summer day in 1976, there was an oppressive atmosphere to the place; it felt more like a prison than a sanctuary. I remember thinking Trotsky’s life in Mexico would make a fascinating story. Padura, visiting the museum in 1989, had a similar thought, and he turned out to be the perfect writer to pull it off. Having lived through the Cuban Revolution, he knew firsthand the optimistic fervor of its early days, when Cubans embraced the great utopian dream of Communism espoused by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Padura also saw the gradual corruption of the dream and its decline into diminished freedoms, increasing authoritarianism and hopeless poverty for all but the elite few.

In the October 23, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson wrote an insightful article about contemporary Cuban literature that highlighted Leonardo Padura. Since the Revolution, most Cuban writers have either had to write dull, non-controversial books in order to pass the censors or see their books banned. Padura was the exception. By devoting himself to detective novels, he managed to slip social criticism into his fiction elliptically, avoiding the ire of the state. This made him one of the most popular writers in Cuba. The Man Who Loved Dogs is his most openly critical book, and although he won a national literature prize for it, it’s noteworthy that, after years of skirting trouble in Cuba, Padura now lives in Berlin.

If there is one history lesson from the 20th Century that echoes throughout Leonardo Padura’s important novel, it is this: Any ideology—political, religious, or economic—that must compel people to change their behavior in order for the system to succeed inevitably becomes abusive, corrupt and cruel, and is inherently doomed to fail. All three of Padura’s protagonists love dogs but only one, his questioning Cuban narrator, shows any compassion for his fellow man.

14 Comments

Filed under Books, Reviews

Life under the regime

Maybe it’s from growing up during the Cold War, but I always imagined life in an authoritarian state to be like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, laying bricks in the Siberian cold, your stomach empty, your fingertips frozen. Or perhaps like Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Big Brother’s thought police around every corner and rats thrust in your face. Or the solitary confinement of Darkness at Noon, facing daily interrogations until you finally confess, only to be marched out into the prison yard and shot.

Those are indeed possibilities, especially for dissidents. But what is life like for the multitude of ordinary citizens who must adapt to a system where the paternalistic authority of the state determines the most intimate decisions? How do individuals respond? How do they survive?

Two novels written close together in time but about two very different regimes and cultures give some insight into these questions.

In Ha Jin’s Waiting, a novel about life in China from the 1960s to the 1980s, we have one answer. Ha Jin came to the U.S. in 1985 to study English literature at Brandeis University. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, he decided to stay here. Like those extraordinary exiles before him, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Jin chose to write in English. Waiting, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1999.

WaitingWaiting is a quiet tale that slyly criticizes China’s post-revolutionary society. It’s the story of a repressed love affair between an army doctor and a nurse in a provincial hospital. The doctor, Lin Kong, is a conscientious, ambitious and educated man who loves books, even prohibited ones from Russia and America. He is also married, an arranged marriage made at his parents’ request, to an uneducated peasant woman. His wife still lives in his native village, tending their small farm and raising their daughter. But when the doctor meets Manna Wu, a single nurse who borrows a book and responds in kind to his polite, never forward, always self-conscious friendship, a flame is kindled.

At the time their relationship begins, in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, an affair would be considered illegal as well as immoral, a non-conforming action that risked punishment, possibly transfer to a harsher assignment and certainly career suicide. Yet, per the hospital commissar’s arbitrary rules, divorce is only permissible after eighteen years of separation. Simply walking outside the hospital grounds with a fellow worker of the opposite sex is not allowed. Discreetly, the couple take this risk to nurture, through several cycles of intensity and misunderstanding, what becomes an eighteen-year platonic relationship.

Even then, their wait isn’t over. Each year the doctor goes home to ask his wife for a divorce. Each time she agrees, but then at court she balks, stumbling under the provincial magistrate’s interrogation and her own mixed emotions or bending to the social pressure exerted by her brother who seeks monetary damages from the doctor.

Waiting is based on a true story Jin heard while serving in the army. He writes in a plain style that owes much to Hemingway, but the story is pure Turgenev or Chekhov. Jin subtly evokes the stranglehold of a political system that values social strictures and the dictates of revolutionary idealism over individual freedom and happiness.

At times you want to shake the characters for not taking action, for not asserting themselves, for living so long with their repressed feelings, for wasting years and years of potential happiness. And then you realize, yes, this is what it must be like to live in a society that does not see beyond the collective. The ending of Waiting is as ambivalent and as frustrating as you might expect.

Dirty Havana TrilogyDirty Havana Trilogy (1998) by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez voices a different kind of frustration. Gutiérrez still lives in Cuba and writes in Spanish, although censorship prevents his books from being published there. (This novel is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer into a slangy English that is pitch perfect.) Gutiérrez depicts life in Cuba during the “crisis” of the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union has collapsed, ending its subsidies to the Castro regime, and the Cuban economy is in utter shambles.

The trilogy is really a three-part collection of short stories told from the largely autobiographical point of view of one Pedro Juan, a radio journalist who quit his job because he was not allowed to report the truth. Pedro Juan lives in a shack on the rooftop of a crumbling apartment building amid the decay, corruption and filth of Havana. With bawdy defiance, he chronicles his efforts to survive, whether that’s working as a garbage man or a janitor, stealing lobsters at night from state-owned traps, or serving as a pimp, a gigolo, a reseller of junk, or a dope peddler.

No matter what job he cobbles together, the overarching focus of his life is sexual gratification, and because of that Gutiérrez has been compared to Henry Miller. But in Gutiérrez’s case, the profligate sex is clearly a metaphor for life under the regime: if you aren’t screwing someone, you’re getting screwed.

With Gutiérrez the political criticism is always near the surface. The city he paints, the lives he describes, are transformed by his defiant sarcasm, visceral earthiness and sexual bravado, but what he reveals is devastating: the willingness of desperate people to prostitute themselves in every way imaginable in order to survive as the state fails to provide for even the most basic needs. This portrait—not the tourist photos of vintage cars and quaint art-deco mansions along the Malecón—is the disastrous endgame of the revolution. A world where the only escapes from poverty, starvation, violence and death are sex, superstition, rum and the carnal rhythms of salsa.

21 Comments

Filed under Books, Reviews