Conversation in The Cathedral
by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Harper & Row, 601 pp., $12.50
by Severo Sarduy, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
Dutton, 176 pp., $8.95
Conversation in The Cathedral (published in Spanish in 1969) and Cobra (published in Spanish and French in 1972) seem to represent opposite poles, or opposite possibilities, in Latin American fiction. Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian living in London, I believe, when he wrote the book, has a definite, almost obsessive subject: Peru itself, a loved, ruined, helpless country—”At what precise moment,” we read on the first page of Conversation in The Cathedral, “had Peru fucked itself up?” and the book replies with a dense report on interlocking Peruvian lives, suggesting that the answer is always, that the precise moment of fuck-up is forever, since the mess is all around and seems, eternal. Sarduy, a Cuban now living in Paris and closely associated with Tel Quel, has no subject, only a set of excuses, of pretexts, springboards for excursions into various territories of imagination and memory.
But the neatness of the opposition between the two writers ends here, and the poles of fiction begin to circle round each other. Vargas Llosa, in spite of his heartfelt subject, is a tricky, mannered novelist, offering us narrative information in the most intricate arrangement of flashback and crosscutting and multiple planes of time. Sarduy, in spite of his absence of subject and a style which blends solemn baroque with high camp and contemporary pop, appears to have no interest in form at all, and is really without tricks—it is as if form and manner for Sarduy were simply old hat, a couple of those uninteresting delusions that people used to entertain about the relation of a writer to his material. The real world, to use an old-fashioned phrase, is often blurred by technique in Vargas Llosa; and just as often sneaks into Sarduy’s text because of the sheer recklessness and openness of the writing.
I can best illustrate these shifting, circling differences perhaps by looking briefly at the titles of the two books. The conversation of Vargas Llosa’s title takes place in a shabby bar called The Cathedral. The speakers are Santiago Zavala, a thirty-year-old journalist, and Ambrosio, the former chauffeur of Santiago’s father, now working at the dog pound, where Santiago has just been in order to collect his dog which had been rounded up because of a rabies scare. It is clear already, I think, from this description, that whatever its narrative behavior, this is a novel heavily dependent upon plot in the conventional sense, upon visible connections among people moving through a particular time and place—Peru, obviously, and for the most part Peru under the dictatorship of Manuel Odría, which ran from 1948 to 1956.
The conversation goes on for four hours, Santiago gets fairly drunk, either from the beer he is drinking or from the oppressive memories the conversation provokes; and phrases from the conversation echo all the way through the novel, providing a sense of structure and a returning reference point. Out of the conversation, like Combray rising out of a teacup in Proust …