Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 27, 2014

Recent novels about Leon Trotsky

Filed under: literature,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

For reasons not clear to me, there’s been a bumper crop of novels about Trotsky in Mexico published recently. The first was Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” that came out in 2009 and is very pro-Trotsky. I have not made time for it, however, because most critics view it as a lesser work.

Moving closer to the current day, there are two books about the assassination of Leon Trotsky that have just been published. One is titled “The Man who Loved Dogs” and written in 2009 by Leonardo Padura, a Cuban. A translation by Anna Kushner now makes the nearly 600-page novel available to English readers. The N.Y. Times review would have us believe that Padura wrote the novel to discredit the Cuban government:

In the context of a plot that revisits the grim mockery of Stalin’s show trials, these acts of compulsive self-incrimination are not only loaded with significance but are also — given that Mr. Padura is a Cuban author writing in Cuba — charged with an additional layer of meaning.

Fidel Castro’s most scandalous show trial was not mounted against a political figure but against a writer: Heberto Padilla. In 1971, after 38 days of detention, Mr. Padilla was forced to “confess” at the Cuban writers’ union to the charges of “subversive activities.” He had published a book of poems faintly critical of the regime.

I don’t know if all this self-incrimination is part of the novel because Mr. Padura wants to make the point that in Cuba, writing is an activity fraught with fear, or because it is the involuntary reflex of someone who has awaited the day of his own political trial. In any case, it stands as a clear register of the author’s circumstance: Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.

As it turns out, the Times assigned one Álvaro Enrique to review Padura’s book. Enrique is a Mexican novelist who perhaps does not consider journalists to be writers. If he did, he surely must be aware that a hundred reporters have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

One should certainly not prejudge Padura’s novel based on the use that Enrique is making of it since the wiki on Enrique states:

Padura’s novel El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs) deals with the murder of Leon Trotsky and the man who assassinated him, Ramon Mercader. At almost 600 pages, it is his most accomplished work and the result of more than five years of meticulous historical research. The novel, published in September 2009, attracted a lot of publicity mainly because of its political theme. The main argument of the author seems to be that Joseph Stalin betrayed socialism and destroyed the hope of creating a utopian society in the 20th century.[citation needed] It leaves open the possibility that such a society might still be possible in the 21st.

The novel that I am looking forward to reading the most, however, is John P. Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”. I had the great pleasure of experiencing his writing in a long article that appeared in the January 2014 Harper’s titled “You Rang: mastering the art of serving the rich” that chronicled his experience at butler school! It is exceedingly witty and socially aware:

Getting the details right was especially important when there were several houses, so that consistency could be maintained from property to property in the remotes for television sets, the controls for lighting and security systems, the organization of kitchen and bathroom cupboards. Principals did not want to fumble around, lost in their own houses. Ms. Fowler used Excel spreadsheets to stock refrigerators with soft drinks, then lined up and photographed the contents so that a glance would tell what needed replenishment. She religiously checked the expiration dates on cans of soda: if you own seven houses and each has as many as six refrigerators — two in the kitchen, one in the garage or storeroom, one in the pool house, one in the master suite, one in the screening room — for a total of forty-two refrigerators, it’s possible that years could pass before a can of soda is opened.

One hopes that Mr. Davidson has found better uses of his talents than checking on soft drink expiration dates, such as his new novel. On his website he describes how became interested in the Trotsky assassination:

My decision to write the novel came gradually, starting on a visit in 2001 to the Trotsky Museum in Coyoacán. As I walked through the Trotsky compound, I sensed an old turmoil, a kind of narrative static electricity. Trotsky’s life in Mexico was so unexpectedly romantic, and the assassination so dramatic, I didn’t understand how it could be that I didn’t know the story.

Or rather, I didn’t understand how I had forgotten the story, because I had been to the museum on earlier visits to Mexico, walked through the rooms, read the documents, and looked at the old black-and-white photographs of the Trotskys with Frida Kahlo, Diego River and André Breton.

I wondered if decades of anti-Soviet propaganda had kept me from grasping Trotsky’s humanity. Or perhaps my perspective had been changed by 9/11 and my own maturity. But whatever the cause, I was certain there must be a compelling book about Trotsky’s exile and the assassination. I began to search for that book but found nothing that was accessible or in print.

In the chapter that I have reproduced below, Davidson describes the encounter between Trotsky’s assassin and Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s chief bodyguard. I only knew Hansen well enough to say hello after joining the Socialist Workers Party in 1967 but I was much closer to George Novack who spent a lot of time in Coyoacan and was one of the main organizers of the Leon Trotsky Commission of Inquiry chaired by John Dewey.

Hansen was 57 when I joined the SWP and still quite vigorous. Despite the fact that I was not that familiar with him personally, his approach to political problems was a great influence on me. To this day, I have Hansen’s methodology in the back of my mind when I am writing about some vexing problem in the class struggle such as how to figure out what is going on in Ukraine and Thailand where class lines are not sharply delineated.

I have only browsed through “The Obedient Assassin” to this point but what I have seen impresses me a great deal. Davidson’s background is as a journalist and this probably accounts for the lean but compelling character of his prose.

The other day Stephen Colbert interviewed novelist Michael Chabon about Ernest Hemingway in a show devoted to the novelist Chabon regarded as always sounding fresh. Although Chabon did not mention it, I think a lot of what we like about Hemingway can be attributed to his training as a journalist. With so many novelists today writing 800 page novels trying to capture What Life is Like Today, it is refreshing to read prose that is focused mainly on capturing human drama in a pellucid style such as how Davidson writes:

Row after row, eight abreast, thousands of Mexicans marched down Reforma. Many looked Aztec or Mayan, with straight black hair and sharply sculptured features. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters, the rank and file of the Communist Party in Mexico, they carried cardboard placards demanding that Trotsky get out of the country. Afuera Trotsky! Trotsky, get out! They walked silently, their faces so impassive, it might have been a funeral procession but for the trucks with loudspeakers that passed at regular intervals bearing large pictures of Trotsky looking satanic with his white goatee, eyes glaring intensely through his spectacles, a harsh metallic voice ringing from big cone-shaped speakers. “Trotsky is a traitor and terrorist!” the voices would cry from the distance, grow painfully loud, then fade away as the trucks moved on. All the while, the shuffling of the workers’ feet on pavement remained soft and constant.

To the casual observer, the May Day parade was a stunning turn-around. Trotsky had been a hero to peasants and workers when he arrived in Mexico, and now he was an archvillain. To Jacques, the parade was a demonstration of Eitingon and Caridad’s prowess They had brought the power of the Kremlin and Comintern to bear upon the Communist Party of Mexico. Moving behind the scenes never showing their hand, they purged the Communist newspapers in Mexico, replacing the editors and writers who had accepted the presence of Trotsky. Brought to heel, the Communist press mounted a campaign against Trotsky, all but calling for blood. Trotsky was not a friend of the worker. He was a terrorist and a Fascist.

Eitingon and Caridad had applied the same sort of pressure to the largest and most powerful labor unions in Mexico, which were Communist-run. Union bosses had turned out twenty thousand Mexicans to protest against Trotsky. Eitingon and Caridad had their kinds on the levers of power and were pulling all of the elements of their plan into alignment. Everything was running according to schedule. The attack on Trotsky would take place soon. It was the first of May; Hitler’s troops had invaded Denmark and Norway. France, the Netherlands, and Belgium were next. The free world would watch in horror as a Fascist dictator marched through West-ern Europe. Hitler would provide all the cover needed for Stalin to settle an old score.

After the parade finally passed, Jacques got in his car and started for Coyoacan. He would have preferred not going on that particular day, but Marguerite had asked him, and he feared it would look strange if he didn’t appear.

As Jacques pulled up in front of the house, lightning flickered in the dark clouds clustered against the volcanoes. He recognized Julia and Ana, the women Siqueiros had hired to spy on the house. Dressed like peasant girls, they were flirting with the policemen in front of their hut. They had rented cheap flats on the next street, where they entertained the police, pumping them for every last detail about their post.

Jacques waved to Jake Cooper in the machine-gun turret, then heard the electric lock snap open as he approached the reinforced door. The heavy metal bar scraped against cement; Sheldon opened lie door, stepping aside, his eyes wide in the dim light of the garage.

“What are you doing, letting me in like that?” Jacques asked in a low voice.

“I heard your car. I knew it was you.”

“You have to be careful.”

“Marguerite had to go out, but Hansen wants to see you.”

“Me? Why does he want to see me?”

“I don’t know, but he said to send you in. He’s in the library.”

Walking up the flagstone path, Jacques felt as if some great gravitational force were taking hold of him, a strong ocean current that would drag him out to sea. The doors to the library stood open a waiting trap. As he stepped beneath the bower of bougainvillea he removed his dark glasses, his eyes and mind working rapidly, taking notes for Siqueiros. The room resembled a battlefield command station, spartan, improvised, orderly with unfinished plank floors thick adobe walls plastered a deep mustard color, bare lightbulb hanging on long cords from the rafters of the ceiling. There were two desks and a worktable, two big black typewriters, filing cabinets, a telephone, a map of Europe, and a small bookshelf filled with volumes of an encyclopedia.

Jacques had imagined the room so often, assembling a picture from bits and pieces of information. He was surprised to find it empty, except for Joe Hansen, who sat at the desk toward the back of the library. He gazed up from a typed document, studied Jacque, for a moment, then got to his feet. Wiry and of moderate height Hansen was like a character from the Wild West, his dark blond hair cut badly by a Mexican barber, pale blue eyes, and a prominent Adam’s apple riding above the knot of his tie and the frayed collar a holstered pistol hanging from a wide leather belt.

“Marguerite asked me to give you this,” he said, handing Jacque, an envelope.

“I’ve seen you outside. I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Yes, I know who you are.”

“The Old Man wanted me to talk to you. He keeps hearing abo you and has begun to wonder what it is you’re doing here.”

Jacques felt his mouth go dry. “I’m in Mexico on business. M wife, Sylvia, introduced me to the Rosmers.”

Hansen frowned. “What about this false passport?”

“Yes, I had to buy a Canadian passport in Paris. I’m Belgian but couldn’t get a passport there.”

“Why was that?” Hansen asked, crossing his arms.

“A problem with my family, a legal difficulty.”

“By legal, do you mean criminal?”

“No.” Jacques recoiled a bit as if offended. “I don’t believe this is your business, but I was commissioned as an officer in the army. Later, after I was discharged, my family pulled strings to have me lecalled so I wouldn’t leave the country. I was eventually cleared hut with the war and all, my visa was tied up in red tape. Buying a passport was a matter of convenience, nothing more.”

Hansen chewed on that for a moment, nodding. “The Old Man also wants to know about your politics.”

“I stay clear of politics.” Hansen gave a slight shrug. “Well, I’ll let you get on your way.”

Leaving, Jacques found Sheldon waiting in the garage. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The tin roof above ticked as the afternoon sun abated. The area smelled of dust and oil and tires and grease. A straight-back chair, a clipboard, and a stack of old magazines sug-gested the monotony of waiting.

“What did he want?” “Nothing. He had a note from Marguerite for me.”

“Why didn’t he give it to me?”

“I don’t know.” Jacques took out his cigarette case, offered one to Sheldon, and took another for himself. As he lit their cigarettes, he observed the young man’s hand tremble slightly. Jacques put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Can you get away tonight?”

He nodded. Yes. “Come to the Shirley Courts. I’ll bring you home.”

“When should I come? Is seven too early?”

“No, that’s good. Now, you’d better let me out.”

He watched Sheldon move the heavy iron aside. The door opened to the smell of rain coming across the valley.

“The Obedient Assassin” can now be ordered from Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/The-Obedient-Assassin-A-Novel/dp/1883285585).

13 Comments »

  1. Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” is no “lesser work”. It is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

    Among other things, she has the most vivid description of the Bonus March in Washington D.C., absolutely riveting. Puts you right in the middle of it.

    Mitchel Cohen

    Comment by Mitchel Cohen — January 27, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

  2. If you love Russian history, and particularly want to learn the truth about the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the characters involved, read the new book by Kenneth Simpson A Vision They Died For on Kindle and at Amazon. An enlightening read from a history watcher baby boomer!

    Comment by cynthiamysteryauthor — January 27, 2014 @ 7:32 pm

  3. I purchased “The Lacuna” with positive expectations and found the story engaging but not especially memorable as far as its depiction of Trotsky was concerned. Kingsolver is an excellent writer, but there are few novelists capable of dramatizing and shedding new light on the kind of big and complex historical questions that a life such as Trotsky’s poses. In any case, I’ve yet to come across a fictional portrait of Trotsky that conveys the meaning and drama of his life and personality as well as does Isaac Deutscher’s classic biography.

    Comment by burghardt — January 27, 2014 @ 11:51 pm

  4. Good book! I’m enjoying it! Got the Kindle edition, what a traitor I am to the bookstore cause, in my in laws family since 1900!.

    Comment by Peter Myers — January 28, 2014 @ 12:51 am

  5. Victor Serge’s compelling novel, “Unforgiving Years”, has an excellent third, and final, section based upon his exile in Mexico, which, while not about Trotsky, of course, provides some insight into the emigre experience there.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 28, 2014 @ 1:31 am

  6. It would be interesting to learn more about Hansen’s analytical methodology. Sort of a lost art these days. Too many people mistake imitating polemical invective for analysis.

    Comment by Chris Lowe — January 28, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

  7. ““You Rang: mastering the art of serving the rich” that chronicled his experience at butler school!”

    For bringing my attention to this I am truly thankful!

    Comment by The Man With No Name — January 29, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

  8. Don’t plug Amazon. There are better outlets, that aren’t eating the bookstores alive. Or just tell folks to go to their local indie bookstore & order it if they don’t have it.

    Comment by Ethan Young — January 29, 2014 @ 11:29 pm

  9. “Or just tell folks to go to their local indie bookstore & order it if they don’t have it.”

    This is what I do. I have the patience to wait because I still have several books to read until I can get to a new one.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 30, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

  10. That last block quote (“Row after row, eight abreast, thousands of Mexicans marched down Reforma…”), is that from Padura’s novel? Or something Chabon wrote? Hemingway?

    Comment by SW — February 7, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

  11. That was Davidson. I just edited my post to make that clearer.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 7, 2014 @ 1:44 pm


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