The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas-Llosa
The “dictator novel” is a familiar terrain for Latin American fiction; I the Supreme, by Augusto Antonio Roa Bastos, The President by Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch all fictionally turn critical eyes and expose the vast wake left by Latin American tyrants. It’s not surprising then that with the mesmerizing, if messy Feast of the Goat, a major spoke in the rich wheel of the Latin American ‘60s “Boom” generation, prolific Peruvian novelist and essayist Mario Vargas-Llosa has written his fictional history of the final days of a tyrannical regime, and its lasting effect on one woman.
The tyrant is the Goat, one of Latin America’s most notorious dictators, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. Alternately referred to in the novel as “El Jefe," “Generalissimo," and “Benefactor," he came to power in 1930 and ruled the Dominican Republic with the proverbial iron fist for over three decades before being assassinated in May of 1961 in a poorly organized coup by a band of disgruntled loyalists. Trujillo’s crimes were extraordinary and included state sanctioned murder and torture, while rapes committed by him and members of his regime were legion. We learn that in 1937 he ordered the slaughter of 20,000 black Haitians who toiled on Dominican sugar cane plantations. Despite these crimes, and feasting on the country financially and psychologically, he maintained a strict anti-Communist policy that ingratiated him with a succession of US presidents.
This isn’t only the story of a murderous dictator however. The intersection of politics and history has been a recurrent theme for Vargas-Llosa, from The War of the End of the World to The Storyteller. Here, he is in interested in the ways tyranny seeps in and ingrains itself within a people and its culture. The fact that Trujillo is going to be overthrown in the novel is a forgone conclusion. The how and why are more important and this is what separates this novel from mere reportage. To do this he constructs The Feast of the Goat on a three-tiered narrative: the story of the last days of Trujillo and his regime, the assassination attempt and the lives of those involved in the plot, and the story of a woman.
This woman is Urania Cabral, 49, a successful lawyer living in New York who returns to her native Santo Domingo (called Cuidad Trujillo at the time) to visit her father Augstin, a former senator and bureaucratic lackey of the Goat. The chapters cross-cut, not always coherently, between present (Urania’s story), past (Trujillo’s last hours), and real-time (the assassination).
Urania has a haunted past and in returning to the country to make peace with her father she risks her emotional stability. Or does she? She doesn’t quite know what she is doing in Santo Domingo after so many years. “Have you come to confront the ruin of your father?” she asks herself. There is a secret, a burden she has been bearing and Vargas-Llosa, as if whispering her story in the reader’s ear, takes his time. In a long and memorable scene Urania meets with her incapacitated father at the home in which she grew up. In this scene she is full of dislodged memory and pent up anger. Spewing mouthfuls of frustration and vitriol at him she tells him:
"My apartment in Manhattan is full of books... Like this house when I was a girl. Law, economy, history. But in my bedroom, only Dominican books. Testimonies, essays, memoirs, lots of histories. Can you guess the period? The Trujillo Era, what else? The most important thing that happened to us in five hundred years. You used to say that with so much conviction. It's true, Papa. During those thirty-one years, all the evil we had carried with us since the Conquest became crystallized. You're in some of those books, an important figure. Minister of Foreign Affairs, senator, president of the Dominican Party. Is there anything you weren't, Papa? I've become an expert on Trujillo. Instead of playing bridge or golf, or riding horses, or going to the opera, my hobby has been finding out what happened during those years."
And find out we do.
The sections recounting the conspiracy to kill Trujillo read like a thriller. Five riveting chapters go by in which the assassins wait in a car for Trujillo’s to appear in order to riddle it with bullets. As we wait along with them in the cramped vehicle there is palpable urgency (“What the hell are we doing here? He isn’t coming!”). These chapters are not, as one might expect, unnecessarily drawn out, but instead are marked by intricate tales of the lives and loves of this one small band of insurgents and how they got converted to the anti-Trujillista movement; some of the conspirators are even longtime members of the regime.
The events Vargas-Llosa depicts are real, but we don’t quite know what details are fact and fiction. We observe Trujillo work out on a rowing machine, shave and shower, and berate subordinates. These sections voyeuristically glimpse the last year of his life at age 70, the life that has left him unable to hold his bladder but still capable of gripping his power like a vice. These chapters that depict Trujillo in action are fascinating, revealing, as though peering through a hole in his head, his inner life:
“He walked to one of the large windows. For a long while he observed the sea in silence. The clouds had covered the sun and the grayness of the sky and air was streaked with silver; the dark blue water reflected it in places. A small boat moved across the bay, heading for the mouth of the Ozama River; a fishing boat, it must have finished for the day and was returning to dock. It left a foaming wake, and though he could not see them at this distance, he imagined the gulls endlessly shrieking and beating their wings. He looked forward with anticipation to the hour-and-half walk he would take, after visiting his mother… smelling the salt air soothed by the waves. Don’t forget to ream out the head of the Armed Forces for that broken pipe at the entrance to the air base. Let Pupo Roman stick his nose in that stinking puddle, then see if the Generalissimo ever finds anything so disgusting again at the front gate of a military installation.”
Trujillo knows he’s slipping, especially after losing the support of the US and the Catholic church. By the time the CIA-backed assassination occurs a full third of the book is left; indeed this is not your ordinary historical thriller. Vargas-Llosa spends much time dealing with the bloody aftermath of the not-quite successful coup; the Goat may be dead but even in death he will have the last violent word.
The English translation is transparent, like most of Edith Grossman’s work, although at times the bureaucracy-speak of the Trujillo chapters can be clunky (“They haven’t processed General Ramfis’s request yet, Chief… I reiterated that the money should be sent to the Central Bank.”). The action is tightly spun if claustrophobic; this perhaps has more to do with Vargas-Llosa juggling three narrative balls of varying weight. He does an admirable job giving the reader the illusion that they’re feather-lite but the difficulty at times peeks through, especially at the ending which seems a tad too neat.
All this makes for fascinating, if at times squeamish reading. There are scenes recounting torture that are particularly brutal. One gets the sense that Vargas-Llosa wanted The Feast of the Goat to be a wake-up call for the world to understand the machinations of how dictators come to power and the sometimes inconceivable reasons why people follow them. As one character remarks “Well, that’s what politics is, you make your way over corpses.”
Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas-Llosa