The Feast of the Goat

Here is a review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel that I wrote three years ago. Somewhat ‘dated’ by blogging standards it sure is, but then one has to be fair to one’s favourite author…

The Feast of the Goat
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
Faber and Faber, London, 2001
£ 10.99, Indian Price £ 6.50

In an interview given to Gabriel Garcia Marquez sometime after the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Mexico in 1995, its masked Marxist leader sub commandante Marcos explained that after Cervantes and Shakespeare it were the contemporary Latin American writers who moulded the minds of his generation. Besides Garcia himself and others, he named Mario Vargas Llosa, quickly adding that he influenced, “despite his ideas”.

This somewhat cryptic comment heightens the tribute to Llosa as he was the right wing presidential candidate during the Peruvian elections in 1990- an election that brought Alberto Fujimoro to power and infamy. But more than that, Llosa has been for decades the most eloquent literary voice from Peru, its leading storyteller, a novelist in the magical realist genre of Jose Borges, Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende and a host of other Latin American novelists.

The novel under review is the latest offering from Llosa- it is a tale woven around the last days of the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the tiny country with an iron hand for thirty-one years before his assassination in 1961. For most part of his reign he had been supported by the US administration and hailed as the bulwark against Communism in Latin America. His brutality and ruthlessness was legendary as was his mania for cleanliness.

It was in the backdrop of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban revolutionary movement that the US started to distance itself from a dictator who had destroyed all institutions in the country and supplanted them with a single one- himself. His highly blemished record on human rights left little options even for the US to support him.

The novel, in Llosa’s trademark style of interleaving multiple narratives and sequencing of events across time describes the events as seen through the eyes of his detractors and conspirators, Trujillo himself and most pertinently, through the eyes of Urania Cabral, daughter of a former Trujillo confidant and who left the country at the age of 14 after her father had fallen into disgrace.

The conspirators are mostly drawn from the circle of the middle level functionaries in the Trujillo administration and personify the old adage that a system falls not only when those who have been left out in the cold oppose it, but when those at the helm realize that the system is no longer sustainable and their convictions crystallize sufficiently for them to join hands and overturn it. Trujillo’s assassins are mostly the second-generation beneficiaries of the regime, those who have not known any other system except Trujillo’s blood- sucking tyranny.

On the other hand, Trujillo sees himself as a man of destiny who has been directed by God Himself to lead his country out of the darkness into a modern civilized nation. He fancies that his countrymen would still be living in the dark ages were it not for him. Indeed with the help of his benefactor, the United States, he did manage to bring symbols and elements of modern life to his country.

Urania Cabral who returns to visit her country for a week provides the third perspective. She returns to the Dominican Republic after 35 years as a 49- year old spinster, a leading professional who has worked with the World Bank and now lives and works in Manhattan with a leading law firm. Why has Urania never married? Why has she never responded to the numerous letters written by her father, relatives and friends over the years? Why does she continue to detest her father who supported her financially as long as he could and helped her to leave the county?

Llosa keeps the reader guessing as he leads him into the intricate maze of the plot and sub- plots. Llosa’s style has elements of a classical symphony- a fugue that keeps on playing till it stretches the reader, only to reward him with a crescendo as Urania’s reasons for her strange behaviour become chillingly transparent.

The novel ends with Trujillo’s assassins being let down by the Chief of the Armed Forces who had agreed to proclaim a civil- military takeover after Trujillo’s assassination. He has been so tamed in all these years that he finds himself incapable of taking the right decision at the opportune moment and only ends up being implicated and brutally tortured and killed by the former dictator’s vengeful son. All but two of the conspirators meet an identical fate.

Trujillo’s family is allowed by the former puppet President Ballaguer to shift millions of dollars out of the country (a step that Trujillo never took himself nor allowed his family to take). The former dictator’s protégés transition the country to a democratic state, under the benevolent eyes of the US administration.

Who finally won? Was it Trujillo who all said and done and despite his brutal assassination at the age of 70 had had the opportunity to put his country on the fast track to his conception of a modern country, whatever be the actual effects of his regime?

Was it the conspirators who despite their capture managed bring an end to the brutal regime? Or was it the protégés who followed the dictator all his life, reaped the benefits under his tutelage and then survived his assassination to emerge as the leaders of the democratic nation?
Urania Cabral, despite the horror that will hang over her all her life does manage to escape to the US and live an independent life.

Is it, yet once again, the victory of political chicanery that wins over courage and brilliance?
Llosa does not pose this question himself but the reader is automatically led to it. It is the same question that Llosa has asked again and again in his works. Most notably in his epic tragedy “The War of the End of the World” as well as lesser known works like “Death in the Andes” and in “The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta”, a novel that places itself in a sort of a trilogy with Joseph Conrad’s “Under Western Eyes” and Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”.

In his attempt at examination of a Latin American dictator and paint his fictional portrait, Llosa brings to mind, most obviously, Garcia Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch”. In its portrayal of those close to Trujillo the novel brings to mind Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle”.

In the story that Llosa has chosen to tell in this novel, the reader is left with multiple versions of the truth and no one-dimensional answers. As in his other works, the reader is left perplexed. Llosa has raised as always, disturbing questions that haunt and leave us groping for answers.

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