Monday, March 3, 2014

THE OBEDIENT ASSASSIN by John P. Davidson: Q&A and Excerpt

Was Leon Trotsky's murderer a hero of the people or a cold-blooded assassin? In his dark and riveting thriller, THE OBEDIENT ASSASSIN, author and journalist John P. Davidson reimagines the life and mission of Ramon Mercader, the Spanish nationalist enlisted to murder the Soviet politician. Based on a true chapter of world history and ten years of meticulous research, Davidson's novel recreates the story of a man at a crossroads of our modern times. In this interview with the author, all the interesting facts about a novel  that perfectly captures the drama of one of the most tumultuous and controversial events of the 20th century.

Q. Great to have you on Mina's Bookshelf, John. What was the most surprising thing you learned from your 10 years of research for the book?
A. One of the many surprising things I learned was that Trotsky had almost absolute faith in the power of the written word. Knowing that Joseph Stalin was attempting to have him killed, Trotsky was attempting to defend himself by writing a biography of Stalin. This had to set some kind of record for a problematic author-subject relationship.

Q. What drew you to Trotsky that made you decide to center a book around him?
A. Trotsky was a classical tragic character. He was known as one of the “great minds” of his time, was considered the greatest orator of the Russian language, and was a brilliant writer who, coming from nowhere, rose to the greatest heights only to have everything ripped away because he had slighted Stalin.

Q. THE OBEDIENT ASSASSIN is a story full of personal relationships. Which relationship is most interesting to you?
A. The relationship between Ramon and Sylvia was intriguing in that it developed slowly into a genuine romance, but what was perhaps more fascinating and certainly more unusual was what occurred between Ramon and Trotsky toward the end of the book. With little direct contact, from opposite sides of the wall,  they became intensely aware of each other and it seemed that Trotsky all but collaborated with Ramon in his execution. As Sylvia says at the end of the book about panic attacks, he certainly stopped looking.

Q. How difficult is it to write fictional dialogue and actions for characters that really existed in history?
A. Because so many of the characters were speaking a second or third language, they needed to sound a bit foreign and that was fairly easy because I’ve studied German, French, Italian and am fluent in Spanish. The scene in the hospital room at the end of the book when there were so many languages being spoken and simultaneously translated was tricky but the power of the drama was worth the effort.

Q. What draws you to this particular period in history?
A. The late 1930s were a romantic, dramatic and mysterious time when the world powers were on a collision course, alliances were shifting, and one could cast the story in terms of good and evil.

Q. If you could go back to one period in history in any part of the world, what would you choose?
A. Paris in the years after the first World War.

Q. Why do you think that few have written about Trotsky’s story?
A. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine destroyed Trotsky reputation and wrote him out of Soviet history.  There are famous photographs from the Revolution that were airbrushed to remove Trotsky from the picture. Many Russians today don’t know that Trotsky was a revolutionary hero.

Q. If Trotsky had not been assassinated, how do you think the world would be different?
A. Trotsky provided a voice of reason and a humane face for socialism, but the forces against him were so great, I doubt the world would be any different.

Q. How did growing up in a small ranching community in Texas impact your imagination as a child and your desire to write?
A. We were newcomers and outsiders in a deeply rooted and tightly knit German community. We didn’t speak the language or know all that much about the culture, so that understanding relationships required attention and curiosity.

Q. After studying economics and history in college, what inspired you to leave Texas and serve in the Peace Corps?
A. I wanted to have exotic adventures, speak a foreign language, and help less fortunate people.

Q. How did your time in Peru impact your storytelling?
A. I was the only foreigner and English speaker living in a small desert village. At night, I read Henry James by candle light after the town’s generator was turned off.

About the book

Ramón Mercader was plucked from the front of the Spanish Civil War by the Soviets and conscripted to murder the great in­tellectual Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution who was exiled in the 1920s for opposing Joseph Stalin.As Ramón is trained for the task and assumes a new identity, he lives a lush life in Paris, befriending Frida Kahlo and other artists of the time. He falls in love with a left-leaning Jewish woman whom he is ordered to seduce as a means of getting at Trotsky.
From Barcelona to Paris and New York to Mexico City, the group controlling Ramón—including Ramón’s mother and her lover—guides the assassin on the inevitable resolution of his grim task as he must penetrate Trotsky’s compound.

(Released by Delphinium Books, on February 4th 2015. Hardcover 312 pages)

About the author

John P. Davidson is the author of the front-page story of the 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.

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.”
She nodded.
“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.”


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