WAS LEON TROTSKY’S MURDERER A HERO OF THE PEOPLE OR A COLD-BLOODED ASSASSIN?
Ramón Mercader seemed to have everything—a lush life in Paris, evenings with Frida Kahlo and other artists, and the love of a beautiful woman who shared his leftist ideals—so why did he carry out the murder of Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution?
Because this bourgeois life was a façade constructed by his mother and her lover, both Soviet agents loyal to Stalin.
Author and journalist John P. Davidson follows the twisted and melancholy path to assassination in THE OBEDIENT ASSASSIN: A Novel Based on a True Story (Delphinium Books/distributed by HarperCollins; February 2014). Based on 10 years of meticulous research, Davidson recreates the story of a man at a crossroads of modern history.
Mercader was recruited from the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War and his newly assumed identity of a Belgian aristocrat allowed him to insinuate himself with the exiled Trotsky’s circle in Europe. When he fell for the Jewish woman he was ordered to seduce to get closer to Trotsky, his obedience began to weaken and his conscience threatened to betray him.
THE OBEDIENT ASSASSIN leads the reader through Spain, France and New York, and finally to Mexico, where Mercader contacts Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who had offered Trotsky and his wife refuge in one of their gated homes. With the atmosphere and detail of the memorable spy novels and movies set in the mid-20th Century, this novel captures the drama of one of the most tumultuous times in world history—and one of its most controversial events.
Excerpted from the book THE OBEDIENT ASSASSIN by John P. Davidson. Copyright © 2014 by John P. Davidson. Reprinted with permission of Delphinium Books. All rights reserved
The men could see the car coming on the road for a long time. It would appear on a rise, then disappear, a black sedan moving through the landscape of white limestone hills. The road was a rough track. Jeeps came that way and trucks, mules, and wagons, but a car was rare.
It was cold that afternoon, the temperature hovering near freezing. Rafts of slate-gray clouds marched south. As far as one could see, the ground had been stripped of anything that would burn; brush, trees, and even weeds had been cut down or ripped up. Tin cans radiated out from the old farmhouse and the entrenchments dug along the ridge. The smell of rotting garbage and human excrement filled the air. Across the valley, on the opposite hillside, the Loyalist camp looked like stone-age dwellings dug into earth. Occasionally, soldiers the size of ants would appear, and a lone voice would echo through the cold dry air. Or, with a resonant metallic snap, a loudspeaker would come on and one of the Loyalists would drone on about General Franco saving Spain and how the Republican Army was filled with comunistas y maricones—Communists and queers. The sound of gunfire was desultory and usually distant—the pow-pow-pow of a rifle or the staccato of a machine gun.
Lieutenant Mercader lay huddled on his cot in a low stone shed that stank of sheep. He heard the car arriving, the voices of men talking excitedly. “Es una dama con su joven.” It’s a lady with a boy.
Women didn’t come to the front, not even peasant women trying to sell food. The lieutenant was cold and exhausted, but he put his feet to the ground and reached for his steel-frame glasses. The shed was filled with gloom, the sound of snoring. When he pulled the tarpaulin from the opening, he saw the Peugeot, elegant despite the crust of white mud, sliding into the farmyard. As he watched, his mother got out of the car. Tall, as tall as most men, she was imposing and inevitable with her shock of white hair. As she walked to the farmhouse, she wrapped a black shawl around her head. She knew the protocol. She would see Commander Contreras first.
The lieutenant considered going to the car to talk to the little boy, his half-brother, sitting in the back. Instead, he let the tarpaulin drop and returned to his cot to wait, pulling the wool blankets over his boots and up to his chin. The ache of shame lay like a chunk of ice in the pit of his stomach. His face rigid, his eyes moving rapidly from side to side, he thought of the words he would say, the hard truths that must be told. Shivering, listening to one of the junior officers snore, he inserted a hand into his pants to scratch at the lice feasting in his pubic hair.
After a while, voices came from the farmhouse, the sounds of departure. She was talking to Commander Contreras, saying goodbye. Then, as was inevitable, she stood at the opening to the shed. “Hijo, ven! Es Caridad, tu mama.” Son, come! It’s Caridad, your mother.
“Voy,” he answered, his voice deep and hoarse.
With a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, he pushed the tarpaulin aside and stepped out of the shed. He studied her face for signs of grieving and saw the flush in her cheeks from drinking brandy at the commander’s fireside.
“Here,” she said, handing him a pack of cigarettes.
“Where did you get them?”
She shrugged, refusing to commit.
“What are you doing here? What do you want?”
“Is that how you greet me?”
He didn’t answer. The expression on his face did not change.
“I wanted to see you. We have to talk.”
“I need to tell you about Pablo.”
“I know what happened. What can you possibly say?”
“We have other things to discuss.”
“Where can we talk? In private?”
“Not here. In the car?”
“No, there is the chauffer and Luis.”
“Then come this way. It isn’t nice, but nothing is.”
He led her down a path through the farmyard and around the corner of the barn. The men, trying to get out of the north wind and looking for privacy, had been shitting against the wall. So much shit accumulated, Contreras ordered them to find another place. Now the dung was dry, frozen, and relatively odorless. Dead rats hung from a wire fence, a warning to their surviving brethren.
She snapped open her handbag to withdraw a second pack of cigarettes, offering him one along with a small box of wax matches. He lit hers, then his, taking a deep breath. “This will make my head spin.”
“What is the ration?”
“Two a day.”
“Keep these as well. There are more in the car.”
Mother and son, they stood in the cold, smoking. Crows cawed in the distance. The black shawl wrapped around her head suggested a peasant woman in mourning, but her back was too straight and there was something innately haughty about the cut of her lips and her prominent cheekbones. She took a deep breath, exhaling audibly through her nostrils. Her eyes drifted over the holes, pocking the plot of ground next to the barn, trying to decipher the mysterious rectilinear pattern, slowly understanding that there had once been an orchard. The soldiers had cut down the trees for firewood, then come back to dig up the stumps to burn, too.
He turned to face her. “So, tell me about my brother.”
“You said you knew.”
“I said you were wasting your time if that was why you came. But now that you’re here, tell me. I want to hear your version.”
Her eyes moved, appraising him, looking for a way past the anger. He was twenty-two, aged by the war, fully a man. His cheeks were hollow, his lips chapped and red. Though dirty and tired, he was handsome with his thick auburn hair. He had her looks, his olive skin shading into the faintest lavender beneath deep green eyes.
“Tell me,” he insisted. “How did they kill him?”
“It was a disciplinary action. Pablo disobeyed orders. He knew the rules. You don’t leave bodies in a public place after a political execution. You never leave a body on the street. What Pablo did was no small thing.”
“They could have warned him.”
“They did. They warned him. He was seeing a woman who belonged to POUM, a suspected Trotskyist. They told him to break it off, but he refused.”
“That was Alicia. He was in love with her.”
“He put himself above the cause.”
“You didn’t defend him?”
“What could I do? I wasn’t there. The orders had been given.”
“With all of your connections, all of the strings you pull, you let your comrades make an example of Pablo? You let this happen?”
She laughed, the silent bitter gesture of a laugh. “I didn’t let it happen. You overestimate my power.”
His voice choked as tears stung his eyes.
“Is it true they strapped him with dynamite? Is it true they marched him in front of a tank? Tell me, is it true?”
“They had him run down like a dog. They gave him a sporting chance, then crushed him in the dirt like a miserable cur.”
“I want to hear it from you.”
“Please, Ramón! This is cruel.”
“He was my brother!”
“He was my son!”
He looked away. The wind was blowing; a crow, its black wings ruffling, had landed on the fence to peck at one of the dead rats.
“The shame. His. Ours. He had to be shitting his pants with terror. And all of his comrades watching!”
She met his eyes, her own blurring with tears. “You have to understand. He was going to be punished. The decision had been made and I could do nothing. Everyone was watching me, waiting for me to break. But no, I held my head up. All I could control was my own behavior. I made the ultimate sacrifice and kept silent. I proved my loyalty beyond a doubt and now they owe me.”
“What are you doing here? What do you want?”
She tossed away the end of her cigarette.
“You know this is a lost cause.”
“If we lose to Franco, we’ll be without a country.”
Her chin lifted, indicating the entrenchments. “Those are Spaniards you’re shooting at on the opposite side of the valley. They’re like you, no different. They’re hungry, scratching at their own flea bites, freezing in their own shit. This is a revolution we should have won. This is archaic, rooting in the mud. You don’t turn people into revolutionaries by shooting at them. You indoctrinate them. We would have won had it not been for Trotsky, splitting the left, setting the people against each other.”
“I know about Trotsky. You needn’t preach to me.”
“You have to understand that the fight has moved on; a bigger war is coming.”
He shuddered, feeling the cold once more. “What do you want from me?”
Her eyes settled on his. “I have been given an opportunity. I’m leading a mission that will change the course of history. I am second in command. It’s a great honor for all women. I’ve come here with an assignment for you.”
“As you see, I’m engaged in fighting a war.”
“No, you have to listen to me. This is undercover, intelligence. Our orders come directly from Stalin.”
“How did this plum fall into your hands? Is this a reward for your loyalty?”
“Perhaps in part.”
“Who is first in command?”
“Colonel Eitingon. Leonid.”
He laughed. “Of course, Eitingon! Hasn’t he done enough to us?”
“What do you mean?”
“He left you when you were pregnant. I remember your misery.”
“I behaved like a bourgeois girl. He did what he could. He never left us. He helped us. He paid for you to go to school.”
“He abandoned you.”
She winced, shaking her head. “That isn’t true.”
“That’s his bastard sitting out there in the car.”
“Leonid wanted to stay with me.”
“But he had two wives, two families. Walking out on Papa the way you did, dragging all of us to France, you ruined our family.”
“I had to leave Barcelona. I was dying on Calle Ancha, and I didn’t know it.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Ramón, you want to hate me, but we’re alike. You have so much to gain, but you must face the truth. We have to think beyond Spain.”
“Without our country we have nothing. We’ll be like the Gypsies, the Jews, wandering from place to place.”
“That’s why we have to win the bigger war. Ramón, we have to think ahead. I can take you out of all this. Tonight in Barcelona, you will have a hot bath and a good meal. You can see Lena. You’ll sleep in a warm bed, and in France…”
“Yes, Paris. We would leave tomorrow. What I am offering you is something far better than this, perhaps something glorious.”
“What is the assignment?”
“I can’t tell you. Not here. But you will know soon enough. Trust me!”He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. No, never.”
Praise for The Obedient Assasin:
"The Obedient Assassin is quality storytelling. It is so good that at time it almost feels like you are in a movie. The setting, characters, and details are of such quality that you feel you are in a 1950s noir film. "- Joseph on Goodreads.com
"The author has done an incredible job in recreating the events surrounding the assassination of Trotsky. He has obviously done detailed and painstaking research into the people and places involved and how events unfolded. This is an extremely good novel – engrossing and fascinating. You do not need to know anything about the politics or characters involved in these events. However, it is impossible to remain unmoved by the plight of everyone concerned and it is a book which will stay with me for a long time." - S Riaz on Amazon.com
About the author:
JOHN P. DAVIDSON is the author of the front-page story of the upcoming January 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He began writing for Texas Monthly in 1976, and in 1980 published the expose, The Long Road North (Doubleday). He subsequently received a NEA grant and the Penney-Missouri Prize for Excellence in Journalism. He has held senior editorial positions at The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Texas Monthly, Vanity Fair, and the San Antonio Express-News. He edited Texas Architect and writes frequently about culture, society and politics. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to GQ, Fortune, Mirabella, Elle, House & Garden, Preservation, and Mexico Business. He taught English at the Universidad Catolica de Puerto Rico, and has been a guest lecturer at the University of the Americas in Cholula, Mexico.