In 2005 Jean-Pierre Rondas interviewed the Portuguese author José Saramago for Klara, the Flemish classical radio. Saramago spoke in a very clear French. The other day I listened to the tape again and at a given moment he said: “Il faut finir avec l’utopie!”. This means something like: we have to stop (using/believing in) utopias.
And he explained this further: believing in or fabricating utopias is postponing what we should be doing now, is accepting the status quo. At that moment he was writing his political novel Seeing (which I have in the Spanish translation Ensayo sobre la lucidez).
Of course, Lenin thought the same thing. Religion was for him a utopia and as such something that prevented people to live their life here and now. While reading this book however, I couldn’t stop feeling that someone like Trotsky — and many others as well — was fabricating his own utopia. And perhaps this was the main difference between Trotsky and his nemesis Stalin: the one was a theorist, a dreamer in a way, but with an analytical mind, the other a ruthless politician.
This superbly written book tells the story of Trotsky’s exile, mainly in Mexico. Because Mr Patenaude regularly deviates into earlier periods of Trotsky’s life, this might almost be called a biography.
The main theme of Trotsky’s last years is the ill-fated battle with Stalin. Trotsky uses words, his only weapon. He writes books, pamphlets, political analyses. Stalin uses espionage, violence, political and diplomatic pressure to hunt down all members of Trotsky’s family and in the end he orders the assassination of Leon Trotsky himself.
It is an uneven battle, of course. A battle fought between opposing groups that both are just as blind.
One petty example of this: Trotsky used to be portrayed as a fascist (with the swastika, while he was a Jew!) in the American and Mexican communist press. But after the treaty between Stalin and Hitler (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939) the communist press had to drop the swastika.
It is a very good book. Mr Patenaude describes Trotsky as a highly intelligent man, a hard worker, a fighter, but also as a very difficult man, very demanding for his collaborators, his guards, etc. We follow the changing relationship with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and he describes the many attempts to assassinate Trotsky.
A fine piece of history writing that surpasses the biographical because it also portrays an entire period.