Those who loved Leon Trotsky and those who hated him could agree that his life was one of the great dramas of modern history. A small-town boy from Ukraine, he rose through the ranks of revolution and stood next to Lenin as they brought down the czar's empire in 1917. He then commanded the three-million-man Red Army that won the civil war.
A self-taught intellectual, he was also a supremely talented manager. But after Lenin's death, Stalin pushed him aside and by 1930 Trotsky was powerless. He was exiled, wandering the earth in search of refuge while issuing a stream of articles assailing Stalin as a vicious tyrant. He died at age 60 in Mexico City, assassinated by a team Stalin sent after him.
No one else in the 20th century reached that high and fell that low. The belief in his life as an epic of modern politics is the reason the University of Chicago Press has recently reprinted a littleknown American book from 1959, The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky, by Bernard Wolfe. University presses rarely get behind novels but the Wolfe book richly deserves this chance at a new audience.
Like a good historical novelist, Wolfe inserted his own intuitions in the spaces between the known facts. The result is so well crafted that readers can follow the plot with excitement, even though they know at the start how it ends. Wolfe renamed the main character V.R. Rostov, but there's no doubt he's Trotsky.
His supporters in Mexico find he's hard to protect. He's not interested in his guards and he carelessly lets strangers into his house. Something in his past is bothering him and we soon know what it is: Kronstadt.
In 1921, sailors at the Kronstadt naval base near St. Petersburg rebelled against the new communist government, demanding liberation from party control. Trotsky might have negotiated but instead sent in the army. Thousands of rebels died and others went to Siberia.
This is the guilt that disturbs the sleep of Rostov/Trotsky. It haunts him and undermines his sense of himself. Wolfe sees it as a damaging flaw that perhaps makes him hope for an early death. We meet him when he's writing his autobiography, reluctant to deal with the Kronstadt chapter. Meanwhile, his enemies await their chance.
History notes that the successful assassin was Ramón Mercader, a Spanish-born communist recruited by the Soviet secret police and trained in Moscow. In 1938, in Paris, Mercader was introduced by another agent to Sylvia Angeloff, a Brooklyn woman with connections to Trotsky. Under instruction, he became Angeloff 's lover, calling himself Jacques Mornard, claiming to be the son of a Belgian diplomat.
When Angeloff went home to Brooklyn, Mercader followed her. He was now a Canadian called "Frank Jacson," using the passport of a man who died in the Spanish Civil War. That way, he told Angeloff, he could avoid military service. When he went to Mexico City, she went with him. Trotsky welcomed her, and she introduced Mercator. He posed as a sympathizer. On August 20, 1940, he drove an ice axe into Trotsky's skull. From a Mexican court he received a 20-year prison sentence for murder and from Stalin the Order of Lenin. In 1961, when Mercader emerged from jail, he was named a Hero of the Soviet Union. His mother, a Spanish Civil War veteran and part of the team sent to kill Trotsky, also received a decoration. The Mexican police assumed Angeloff was complicit but finally decided she was innocent.
Wolfe, using different names, re-staged the events. The killer, Jacques, has been ordered to seduce Emma, a secretary to Rostov/Trotsky.
He's forced to accept this assignment to save his mother. She's been overheard making anti-party statements and back in Russia an indictment awaits her. (The secret police will dismiss the charge if the assassination succeeds.) Jacques finds his mother a burden and she considers him a weakling and an idiot. His conflicted feelings turn him against the innocent Emma, who can't figure out why he treats her so badly.
The Great Prince Died is the one notable book by Wolfe (1915-1985). A Yale graduate, he wrote for Trotskyist journals, including The New International, in the 1930s. When Trotsky's American friends wanted an English-speaking secretary to assist Trotsky in Mexico, Wolfe volunteered and worked in 1937 as Trotsky's secretary, returning to the U.S. before the assassination. Back in America, Wolfe became an all-purpose freelancer. He edited some Paramount newsreels, wrote a book about the uses of plastics and worked for Mechanix Illustrated. In 1946 he collaborated with the jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow on Mezzrow's autobiography, Really the Blues -- a book I cherish, despite its inaccuracies, for awakening my interest in jazz at age 14.
Wolfe was hired as ghost writer for the internationally syndicated column of the showman Billy Rose, highly popular in The Globe and Mail. He wrote a futurist novel called Limbo that J.G. Ballard said encouraged him to start writing fiction. Another of his books, The Late Risers, was a portrait of hustlers, actors and drug dealers populating Manhattan at night. His stories appeared in Playboy. He revisited the Trotsky material for a TV drama, The Assassin, and for an article, The Man Who Murdered Trotsky.
Mercader killed Trotsky but Trotskyism remains alive. A recent report from Britain said the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, had Trotskyist backing. The late Christopher Hitchens, a Trotskyist in his youth, noted that for generations after the assassination Trotsky's followers showed up persistently in anti-Establishment campaigns. They carried banners bearing his picture in the 1968 Paris uprising, they demonstrated against the Vietnam War, they opposed Orange Unionism in Northern Ireland. And as anti-Soviet feelings stirred in east Europe, Trotskyists helped create Poland's Solidarity movement. Various Trotsky offshoots were in the mob that levelled the Berlin Wall. The irony was not lost on Hitchens. Those still loyal to Trotsky, he wrote, "carried out his final wish by taking part at last in a successful revolution -- against communism."