| Rafael Trujillo
The Feast of the Goat By Mario Vargas Llosa, Faber, £ 6.50
Midway in the novel, Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who had held ruthless sway over the Dominican Republic for thirty-one years, dies by assassins’ bullets on a deserted stretch of the highway. It is May 30, 1961, and the terrible Trujillo Era is not yet over. For Mario Vargas Llosa, too, the story carries on, because his historical novel depicts the many manifestations of corruption and brutality in civic and political life that accompany and follow a dictator’s rule. The Feast of the Goat belongs to the tradition of the Latin American “dictator” novel, which harks back to Miguel Angel Asturias’s The President (1946), and comes down through Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme (1974), Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974) and Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975). It is of the tradition and yet different. The earlier novels create, in different ways, fantasies of power, through which real historical experiences are transformed into explorations of the human soul. Llosa’s technique is realistic, his assiduous handling of documented detail makes for sharp and credible profiling of even the imaginary characters.
The real dictator in Llosa’s novel, however, can easily be taken to represent his tribe; the story is a fictional reconstruction of what tyranny does to people, both the oppressors and the oppressed. In reply to a question about the obscureness of the subject, the author had said, “If a book doesn’t recognize any given situation as more human than strictly national, more universal than national, then it’s not literature.” While Llosa’s novel contributes to the corpus of Latin American “civic” literature with its preoccupation with socio-political ideals, it may have had a more intimate genesis. Alberto Fujimori defeated Llosa in the 1990 elections in Peru and gradually inclined towards authoritarian rule. The Feast is a direct indictment of tyranny: the unambiguousness of technique and narrative direction, of the intertwined stories of fear, fascination and hatred, embody Llosa’s intellectual and political opposition to totalitarianism.
Llosa’s passionate political conviction gives the novel its pace and sense of doom. The end is known, yet the tension never flags, even in the long digressions into the pasts of once-loyal Trujillistas who are now waiting to kill the dictator. The hatred of totalitarian rule obscures those aspects of Llosa’s politics that some critics find problematic. Rather harshly labelled “the Newt Gingrich of Peru”, Llosa does gloss over, or does not seem to notice, the game that the United States of America continues to play with Trujillo, setting him up and helping to pull him down, and the novel does not leave any space to question whether the delayed vindication of the conspirators’ moral cause is undermined by the quiet arrival of American ships in the island’s harbour.
But such is the storyteller’s craft that these discomforts are banished to the periphery of the reader’s consciousness. Three strands of narrative run through most of the novel, of which the frame story is purely imaginary. This device permits the oscillation between past and present, essential in evoking the total destruction wreaked by an era of tyranny. In the frame story, the daughter of a minister, disgraced by Trujillo in one of his “frivolous” tests of loyalty, returns to her hometown after more than thirty years and ends up recounting the reasons for her abandonment of her country and her now paralysed father. In a way, her Iphigenia-like experience symbolically represents the betrayal of humanity that sustains a tyrant’s regime. Yet this is the weakest strand in the novel, and Urania Cabral, the beautiful, self-exiled daughter of the republic, the least defined character in the whole tale.
There is no such problem with Trujillo, whose last day makes up another strand, or with the greedy, fawning, terrified, secretive loyalists who surround him. The dictator’s physical presence is as disorienting as his nation-building policies are ominous. His respect for his mother and unqualified admiration for the American Marines are mixed in with his rhetoric of selfless love for the country and sense of pitiful victimhood. His fanatical cleanliness and fury at the betrayal of his seventy-year-old body are set off by the bloodthirsty logic with which he rationalizes his stranglehold on the country. His personality finds its metaphysical extension in “Johnny” Abbes, head of military intelligence, master of “disappearances” and a craftsman of torture, with an army of thugs at his beck and call. Llosa gives us evil from across the table, demythicized and banal, but no less fascinating.
The fascination does not stem from Trujillo’s charisma alone, much of it is a creation of his “collaborators”. They are as much Llosa’s subjects as Trujillo himself. The complete moral surrender of learned, creative, astute men to corruption and fear, their willing complicity in the tyrant’s murderous games, make up the real story. Inevitably, from among the collaborators come the survivors, like Balaguer, who plays a delicate game after Trujillo’s death in order to take up the reins.
The third strand, describing the ordeal of the waiting conspirators, merges with the central one after Trujillo is killed. It is in the second part of the novel, which records the terrible outcome of a failed coup, that Llosa is at his best. The man who was supposed to seize power the moment Trujillo died is overcome by a paralysing lack of will: the dictator’s undying legacy to those closest to him. The details of the witch-hunt for conspirators and their kin and hideous details of torture after their capture, both overseen by Trujillo’s vengeful son, have far greater power and immediacy than the frame story of Urania’s betrayal, apparently related so many years later. Her young niece’s gentleness towards her at the end seems futile as closure, for what persists is the grim memory of complicity, defeat, indignity and death.