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Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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HAVANA, Oct 26 2010 (IPS) - Six years ago, when I leapt definitively down the rabbit hole of writing a book about the exile and assassination of Leon Trotsky, and the bizarre and spurious selection, training, and fate of the man who would ultimately be his assassin (the Catalan Ramon Mercader), I frequently asked myself the same question that journalists and readers have asked me since the publication of the novel in Spain in September 2009, and recently published in Italy in the first of a number of translations underway: what can you tell us that is new about the history of the assassination of the ousted communist leader exactly 70 years ago, with WWII raging and in a remote world in which, at the end of that conflict political systems would divide into two camps, the communist and the capitalist. A distant time in which a large part of humanity still believed (despite Stalin) in the possibility of a proletarian socialist utopia founded by the October Revolution, the better world always dreamt of by man.
It’s been twenty years already since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the collapse of the USSR. Yet in that time there has been no slowing of the flow of documents and testimony about the reality of real socialism: and though we believe that we already know everything, the elucidation of episodes like the Katyn massacre in which Soviet soldiers killed thousands of Polish officers, and the distribution of one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Life and Destiny, in which Russian Vassili Grossman lays out the essence of totalitarian systems, or the simple (not so) understanding of the daily run-ins with terror that filled and perverted the lives of millions of human beings, are stories that still affect, because economic, political, and even religious totalitarianism, the desire for control, and the fight for power are still not things of the past. And nor is or will ever be the right to dream of a world where we are all really “more equal” as George Orwell would say.
Now if much has already been written about all of this, what can a Cuban writer contribute who has lived and continues to live the Cuban experience in the streets of his city, trying to capture it in his novels?
The practice of literature in Cuba, still today, fortunately, involves the old responsibility of commitment: because it would be neither dignified nor ethical or even artistic to write literature in Cuba for aesthetic reasons alone. Although maybe it could be, in the name of this supreme liberty that Trotsky himself believed should be extended to art.
However Cuba is not only a complex and highly politicised reality but also unique and, despite this, is often seen in simplistic modes, both adulatory and condemnatory, without grasping the elements that give it its extraordinary density, which no one understands better than Cubans themselves.
One of the possible and valid reasons to have written such a novel in Cuba and from Cuba would be to consider it as a response to the idea that art should have a “cognitive function”.
The near total lack of knowledge of the trials that led to the political fall and assassination of Trotsky, that ink-black cloud in which we Cubans have lived for decades, was one of the elements that generated the impulse to write this novel and that then sustained it. Because without a doubt, from my point of a view as a novelist, more than a historical fact the brutal assassination of Trotsky is a powerfully charged symbol: it was, as we say in Spanish, the cherry that the pie needed.
Because this killing, ordered against a supposed “fascist enemy”,, was carried out a year after Stalin signed the Non-aggression Pact with Hitler’s Germany and invaded Poland with the remnants of the Red Army that, in collusion with these same Germans, the red tsar had purged in 1937. The death of the “traitor” Trotsky also came a year after the painful defeat of the Spanish Republic, where Stalin’s advisors enthusiastically carried out the same sickening fundamentalist terror campaign that had been inflicted on the USSR. The condemnation of Trotsky, moreover, had been carried out in certain Muscovite trials that between 1936-38 eliminated the last elements of the old guard Bolsheviks who, with Lenin and Trotsky himself, had made the 1917 revolution and launched his ideas into the world.
The murder was carried out with an ice axe placed in the hands of a communist believer (Ramon Mercader) after millions of Soviets and thousands of European communists had been sent off to Siberian work camps or died (by the millions) in the land and property “collectivisation” process that impoverished Russia and condemned the inefficient communist state economy.
Off the island the knowledge of these phenomena was more widespread, discussed, and even refuted, but with the passage of a few years, forgetfulness set in and today, just two or three generations later, it is as if it never happened.
I am and will always be convinced that it is useful, indeed urgent, to know and relive in the 21st century the political as well as social and human reasons for the perversion of the marvellous idea that man can live in a society with equality and not only with free health care and education but also the maximum freedom and the maximum of democracy, to make human existence truly more full and whole.
The urgency and relevance of this understanding derives from the reality of our world today, battered by economic, ecological, migratory, and religious crises. It is a world that extols its democracy but in which millions of humans suffer from chronic hunger and misery, which makes us consider the necessity of refounding a utopia, a better world, and one doesn’t repeat the mistakes and horrors and that characterised (and ruined) the first attempt, scarring the 20th century.
For this reason I believe that, in a Cuba that finally carries out conceptual and structural changes of its socialist system, it was necesary, and a visceral issue for me, that I write a novel on a crime that occurred 70 years ago and tells the story of three men -a Soviet, a Spaniard, and a Cuban- who, however different, shared that most human trait of loving dogs. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.
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