Leonardo Padura, The Man Who Loved Dogs: Let's stipulate that El Boom, the earlier generation of Latin American writing, had as one of its central theses the unreality of place. Its Latin America is historical, exotic, sometimes magical, sometimes uncanny, a place that looks and feels very much like anywhere else in the world, except in the small and telling differences. How ever little else Isabel Allende, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges et al might have had in common, they at least had that. The exception, if there is one, is Mario Vargas Llosa, who seems determined to assert the reality of existence against any claims of the fantastic.

If that's El Boom, the New Boom accepts different criteria: realism and honesty above all else, especially when the subject is violence. If anything holds together Javier Marias, Javier Cercas, Roberto Bolaño, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and the other figures of the current moment in Latin American literature, it is that the latter half of the 20th century was held together, in Spain and elsewhere, by unimaginable and banal acts of coercion and violence: Spain in the long aftermath of the Civil War, Chile and Argentina in the brutality of the juntas, Colombia in narcoterrorism and paramillitarism, Mexico in gang violence and global capitalism. The challenge these writers face is to explain this history well.

The Man Who Loved Dogs manages two difficult tasks well. First, it explains a historical event, the murder of Leon Trotsky by Ramón Mercader. Second, it is a retrospective work looking back on communism. Books whose ending is foreordained--Mercader is going to kill Trotsky, probably near the end of the novel--have a difficult time creating and sustaining tension. Books on communism have a strong tendency towards historical revisionism that makes for a predictable set of plot options and postures.* The solution to both problems is mixing historical locations and time periods: Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Russia in the 1930, Russia in the 50s and 60s, 90s and 00s Cuba; there is no one Communism, but a series of different responses in different concrete situations. Mercader and the narrator are both largely kept in the dark about what's really going on until it is too late. There are no bold statements about communism as a whole, but a long series of reflections on what it means to kill a man who is quite friendly as a person in the name of an ideology; Mercader has to spend a lot of time thinking about what he's done. It reverses the trend of writing on communism by focusing on the life of one person, a tragedy.

*The only contemporary novel-like book that meets this challenge is Red Plenty, a sympathetic but not too sympathetic look at Soviet communism in the best years of the 50s and 60s. I would also recommend the films The Cranes Are Flying and Letter Never Sent for good realistic and metaphorical understandings of communism--and produced by communists, no less.

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