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'Feast Of The Goat' Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman

Multiple viewpoints reveal Dominican despot

Saturday, November 24, 2001

By By John Freeman, a free-lance writer living in New York

 
 

Feast Of The Goat

By Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
$25.00

   
 
It is a moral obligation of a writer in Latin America to be involved in civic activities,” Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa said, and judging by his career, Vargas Llosa has taken that obligation quite seriously.

In four decades, he has published 17 books of fiction, criticism and plays, many of which have attacked the corruption of Peru’s ruling class. In 1989, Vargas Llosa capped this duty to his country by running for president, ultimately losing to Alberto Fujimori.

In his latest novel, Vargas Llosa takes a break from being what one critic called “his country’s conscience” and brings his knowledge of the political process to bear on a kaleidoscopic portrait of life in the Dominican Republic during the reign of brutal and controlling president Rafael Trujillo.

Like many of his previous books, this one shuttles deftly between multiple viewpoints. As the book opens, 49-year-old Urania Cabral journeys back to Santo Domingo to be reunited with her ailing father, a former senator who left Trujillo’s government in disgrace. Although she has become a successful lawyer in New York, Urania struggles with memories of the time her father “gave” her to the infamous and carnal dictator.

Meanwhile, cutting back 40 years, a group of assassins wait to pounce upon Trujillo’s motorcade, each man harboring his own grudge against the president. One man blames him for his brother’s mysterious death. Another resents Trujillo for forcing him to choose between the regime and his true lover.

Finally, there is Trujillo -- aka “the goat” -- who appears on the page with the full-blown personality of a Shakespearean character. He is fastidious in appearance and makes outlandish gestures of virility (including ordering a regular shipment of virgins).

In his constant battle for power, he pits enemies against one another, orders executions and rationalizes these maneuvers as essential for the good of the country.

Although the novel’s three strands do not entirely mesh -- Urania never becomes more than a visible guide into history -- Vargas Llosa brilliantly captures the psychological cost of living under Trujillo’s regime. During Trujillo’s sections, the language grows taut and clipped, as if representing the tunnel vision which so often afflicts dictators.

When he inhabits the thoughts of the conspirators, however, Vargas Llosa’s prose becomes knotty and circuitous. Listening to Trujillo lie to him about the death of his brother, one man thinks:

“It was something more subtle and indefinable than fear: it was the paralysis, the numbing of determination, reason, and free will, which this man, groomed and adorned to the point of absurdity, with his thin high-pitched voice and hypnotist’s eyes, imposed on Dominicans, poor or rich, educated or ignorant, friends or enemies, and it was what held Antonio there, mute, passive, listening to those lies, the lone observer of the hoax, incapable of acting on his desire to attack him and put an end to the witch’s Sabbath that the history of the country had become.”

As the book accelerates toward Trujillo’s 1961 assassination, Vargas Llosa is careful not to turn this book into a rant. His Trujillo is predictably ruthless and cruel, but he is also insecure, lonely, and yet convinced to the core that his actions are justified.

It is a testament to the novelist’s powers that, in the end, while despising the despot, we also pity him for his failure to lead without oppressing.

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