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John Davidson's "The Obedient Assassin"

Killing Trotsky

by LOUIS PROYECT

Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

The novel makes no attempts to make Grand Statements about the world after the fashion of Kingsolver or Padura but simply tells the story of how Ramon Mercader ended up assassinating the man that Lenin favored to lead the Soviet Union after his death. In some ways, the novel reads like a very good spy thriller—and after all, that’s what Mercader was, a spy. I was reminded of two of my favorite novelists who work within this genre, Eric Ambler and Alan Furst. What, you haven’t heard of them? Boy, do you have some great reading in front of you.

Despite knowing how the story will end, you find yourself sitting at the edge of your seat as the GPU closes in on Trotsky. Oddly enough, I couldn’t help but think of the assassination of Jesse James as that dirty coward Frank Howard shot poor Jesse in an unguarded moment. Now, of course, we know better Obedient-Assassin-by-John-P.-Davidsonnowadays that James was a filthy bushwhacker but not so long ago he was more often seen as a modern day Robin Hood. When American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon was sent to prison for violations of the Smith Act in 1941 (his party opposed WWII), he liked to kid the bank robbers he ran into in the yard. Why bother with small change, he told them, we were after the whole thing.

Muralist David Siquieros, who led a hit squad that despite firing machine guns into Trotsky’s bedroom for twenty minutes failed to meet their target except for a minor scratch on Trotsky’s grandson’s foot, was much more skilled with a paintbrush.

It was up to Mercader to finish the job. Mercader was known to the people at Coyoacan as Frank Jacson, the name on the passport he used to get into the U.S. But his wife, a New York Trotskyist named Sylvia Ageloff, knew him as Jacques Mornard, supposedly a Belgian playboy. Among the thousands of lies he told her was that he had to use a fake passport as Jacson since he was supposedly wanted for avoiding military service in Belgium. The truth is that he was a Spaniard named Ramon Mercader and a member of the Communist Party who fought in Spain. His mother was Caridad, also a Communist and deeply involved with the GPU. She was the one who recruited him to penetrate the Coyoacan fortress and provide intelligence for Siquieros’s raid. When the raid failed, it was up to Jacson to carry out the hit with the weapon he chose for the occasion, a pickax used for mountain climbing.

In order to make Mercader a somewhat more sympathetic character, Davidson portrays him as someone who grows increasingly averse to his assignment—arguing to his GPU handlers that the Trotskyists were intellectuals and no threat to the Soviet Union. Of course, the Stalinists were totally psychotic by this point so reasoning would be useless. They told Mercader that unless he did his duty, he, his mother and his wife would all be killed. Like the mafia, the Kremlin had a way of enforcing obedience. As a title, “The Obedient Assassin” reflects this reality, but the title could have just as easily been “The Reluctant Assassin” since this was Mercader’s state of mind as the date drew near for the fatal encounter.

To refresh my memory on the assassination, I reread Isaac Deutscher’s account in volume three of his biography “The Prophet Outcast”. He describes Mercader as “nervous and gloomy” in the final days. Of course, we don’t know exactly what caused him to appear this way. It might have been fear of being caught rather than moral reservations. That lacuna, to use Kingsolver’s term, enables a writer of fiction like Davidson to mold reality to his artistic intentions.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, the assassination of Leon Trotsky was a much more current event. I was near enough to Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s bodyguard who disarmed Mercader, to be able to chat with him from time to time—or to be more accurate allow him to reflect on what was happening in the world.

Hansen and many others from his generation were like Trotsky’s disciples. It is not hard to picture them at a Last Supper in Coyoacan as the “prophet” shares wine and dinner with the faithful.

Trotskyism, needless to say, never enjoyed the success of the sect that was launched in Jesus’s name. When I was a young member, the world seemed ours for the taking. The Fourth International was growing everywhere and capitalism appeared on the ropes. Now, nearly a half-century later, capitalism seems as in charge as it ever was and the once-proud movement I belonged to is in tatters everywhere. This does not change the obligation for me and for every other human being of conscience to take a stand against a system that is capable of killing the planet just as decisively as Mercader’s pickax took the life of an outstanding Marxist thinker. Mercader might have been right in describing Trotsky as nothing but an intellectual but he was one for the ages.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.