Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $35), translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner, tells the story of Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río, Trotsky’s assassin, as he is transformed by his Soviet handler from an idealistic Catalan communist to a brainwashed killer. It also purports to tell the story of Trotsky himself, in the years of his exile, and of an impoverished Cuban writer who, meeting Mercader on the beach in the late 1970s, decides to write it all down.
The sections devoted to Mercader are hard to bear. They consist of sentences like the following, in which Mercader, now calling himself Ramon Pavlovich, thinks about the daughter he never met: “Ramon had felt the weight in his chest of the fundamentalism to which he had submitted and that had prevented him from even weighing the possibility that it was not necessary to abandon his ideas in order to go looking for his daughter.” And yet things happen to Mercader! He changes his name, learns to fight, moves around, talks to people. It is at least possible to see what might have been made of his story had it been subjected to an unsparing editorial hand or—even better—scrapped and rewritten by John le Carré. The story of Trotsky’s exile is, by contrast, an unbearable fog of tedium. It reads like a long novelization of his Wikipedia page. “The exile” sits in a chair reading about things like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or Stalin’s show trials, and the reader reads about him reading about these things. The assassination feels like a mercy.
For an American reader to whom the crimes of Joseph Stalin are already familiar, The Man Who Loved Dogs is an exercise in naïve outrage. It is only in the story of the Cuban writer that something like a real literary idea emerges. After discovering that the man he meets on the beach is indeed Trotsky’s murderer, and after learning something about Trotsky himself, this writer reflects: “My first reaction to the news was to feel sorry for myself and for all those who, tricked and used, had ever believed in the validity of the utopia founded in, then ruined by, the country of the Soviets; more than a sense of rejection, it caused me a feeling of compassion for Mercader himself.”
So it is a novel about Cuba after all—Cuba brainwashed and abused, the Ramón Mercader of Cold War politics. But after hundreds of pages of turgid, unleavened prose, this isn’t good enough. No doubt Padura’s writing has a very different valence in Cuba, where he is an important figure, an almost-dissident tolerated by the regime; but in translation, The Man Who Loved Dogs doesn’t sound relevant or resonant.
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Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa, Somalia’s second-largest city, and fled to London with her family when civil war broke out in the early 1990s. The Orchard of Lost Souls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26) is about that descent into war, and like The Man Who Loved Dogs, it tells this story from the perspective of three different characters; but here the result is a fluent, haunting and powerful novel.
Mohamed’s three protagonists are Filsan, a female corporal in the Somali army, half-vicious and half-vulnerable; Deqo, a young girl from a refugee camp trying to survive on the streets; and Kawsar, a middle-aged woman whose daughter has committed suicide, and who is bedridden for most of the novel because Filsan has beaten her nearly to death. Much of the novel is set in Hargeisa, but more important than the geographical setting is the emotional context: the novel is about private life.
Half a world away, catastrophes like the dissolution of Somalia become abstractions—“war,” “revolution,” “lawlessness,” a “failed state”—and it’s easy to ignore the daily reality. But that daily reality—the sum of misery that this process entails—is the only reality for the people who endure it. War is what it’s called when a great many private lives are ruined at the same time. Kawsar lies in bed listening to the tanks: “It is not so painful to die when all that she knows is dying around her. It seems as if the world had been built just for her and is being dismantled as she departs.” Filsan kisses the dead lips of the man she loves and, in a moment so ghastly it seems comic, “the first kiss of her life numbs both her flesh and her spirit.” Deqo, who has been trying to make her way outside the refugee camp, sees the whole world transformed into such a camp. “Why were [soldiers] chasing you?” she asks Filsan. “Because I used to be one of them,” comes the response. “And now?” “I am one of you.”
The Orchard of Lost Souls has a rigid three-part structure, with a prologue and an epilogue. It has an impartial third-person narrator with a great fondness for flowery metaphor. In style and structure, it resembles nothing so much as a middle-class status-quo novel in which the worst thing that might happen is a divorce. That correspondence sets up the expectation that stability will return, and in this way Mohamed achieves a wonderful and shocking effect: one continually hopes for some improvement, and yet the civil war is only the beginning. Every expectation will be frustrated. It will be twenty years before Somalia has anything like a central government again. “Kawsar, who had been the first to build a bungalow on October Road, would see it forced back to its original state too, the homes leveled to the ground so that the juniper trees and baboons could return.”