When we met to discuss The Man Who Loved Dogs, we were reminded that the Bonnie Lea Book Club’s charge is to read books we would not otherwise read. This book proved the rule. We also began our discussion with intent to prohibit big Rob from recommending a book for a year. And yet everyone agreed it was a book worth reading.
Our criticism of the literary style was that the book was dense and seemed to take twice as many pages as it needed to to tell the story effectively. But some stories require density of description and excessive words to convey the depth of emotions, challenges and fears in the characters' lives. Having seen book reviews comparing this tome to Dostoevsky, we appreciated the level of detail a little more. Furthermore, the difficulty of language may have been a function of the translation, as this book was originally written in Spanish. After the first 200 pages all agreed the book moved at a brisker pace.
We discussed the title of The Man Who Loved Dogs and decided that it was only a literary technique to tie the three primary characters together. A benefit of men who love dogs is that men who love dogs show a certain level of humanity that was otherwise absent in some of these characters, making a human connection easier for the reader. Contemplating whether dogs understand human nature was a distraction in pursuit of finding humanity in the characters who loved dogs, who were otherwise less than sympathetic.
The author Leonardo Padura does a magnificent job weaving fiction and nonfiction into a fully believable and credible work of fiction that reads as nonfiction. Only Ivan, the author of the novel written from the first person, is not a historical character. Ramon Mercatur, Lev Davidovich Trotsky, and even the sociopathic mother Caridad, were historical characters, and those of us who researched the historical people and events were amazed at the closeness to historically accepted truth.
At its core this book is an accounting of how a utopian vision devolved into a dystopian nightmare resulting in the mass killings of tens of millions of humans throughout the 20th century, with entire parts of the world ruled by fear and intimidation. The social experiment based on Karl Marx's vision of allowing workers access to a better life became the vision that enabled megalomaniacs from Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot to Kim il Sung to murder and intimidate entire countries into submission for the benefit of a single ruler and a ruling class. Never has the world seen such broad and brutal subjugation of so many by so few. For Padura, it is an amazing indictment of the Stalinist Island gulag that he calls home (Cuba).
The Cameo appearances by writer George Orwell called to mind interesting themes. Who can forget Snowball in Animal Farm? Snowball is Trotsky, the object of every counter revolutionary indictment. Napoleon, of course, is Stalin, an interesting twist on the original Napoleon's affect on Russian xenophobia.
With so much happening in the late 1930s with Lev Davidovich Trotsky, it was remarkable how unimportant World War II was in this book. The paucity of thought and consideration for World War II brought the importance of what was happening in Russia and in Spain to the fore. And this is a realistic, but different perspective from what we traditionally consider the road to war in Europe that began in 1939.
The Spanish Civil War was an interesting example of how various factions vying for power in a country without political or economic participation by a majority of people fell into almost tribal warfare, foreshadowing many late 20th century conflicts in eastern Europe, such as in Serbia and the Balkans and now in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Iraq. What is the glue that keeps disparate peoples living in the same place from wanting to kill each other? (Opportunity? Rule of Law?)
So what kind of a human being was Lev Davidovich Trotsky? If Trotsky had been successful in asserting power over Stalin in post-Lenin Russia, would the aspirations of Marxist Communist dreamers have had a better chance at success? Trotsky had already demonstrated a willingness to kill innocents and nonbelievers in pursuit of the utopian dream. But was it inevitable that a megalomaniac like Stalin would rise to the top of the pile? Certainly the history of Communist leaders throughout the 20th century suggests that only murderous, ruthless dictators could rule countries under the elusive vision of Communism.
And how about the main character, Ramon Mercadur? The morphing of Ramon from an idealistic Catalan communist sympathizer to Soldier 13 to Jacques Mornard, suggest that hidden at his core, he may have had some redeemable qualities. Examples include his bandaging his hand from Trotsky’s bite, the real possibility of his losing his nerve with one more visit to Lev Davidovich's compound, to the haunting memory of the final scream; the feelings exposed through these events make the assassin almost human. Is that intentional in the fiction?
Chuck chimed in from Spain the following: Truth – it's amazing how Utopian worldviews skewer truth and compelled entire societies to embrace falsehoods. This story leaves me admiring the first amendment and effective constitutional democracy. (me too - GG)
Ultimately, while all of us complained about the first third of the book, we all agreed it was a book worth reading. We decided that we will let Rob make another book club recommendation…after a single quarter hiatus.
Next book: A Climate of Crisis by Patrick Allotted. This book has been billed as a realistic and fact-filled discussion to conter today’s lack of open and honest dialogue on climate change. While we have different members with different feelings about the veracity of climate change projections, this should be a good book for us all. Polar Bears rule.