A new book by Mario Vargas Llosa always provokes attention, for there are few novelists alive as dedicated as he is to the possibilities of fiction, in all its moods, modes, and manners. His writing life has been not just steadily productive but constantly inventive. His novels are so skillfully put together that they are worth reading simply as literary constructs, yet he has remained immersed in his own realities, a writer who wrestles constantly with Latin American contradictions and ambiguities. He first attracted attention in Spain in 1962, with the publication of his novel The Time of the Hero, the book that is often credited with bringing the Latin American novelists of his generation to the world’s attention. As a perpetual dissenter, he has a grave respect for the responsibility of the writer.
His newest novel, La Fiesta del Chivo, which was launched throughout the Spanish-speaking world by the Spanish publisher Alfaguara, now appears as The Feast of the Goat, in a fluid and intelligent translation by Edith Grossman. (The Spanish edition has 510 pages, the translation 404.) The Chivo, the Goat of the title, is Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, who ruled the Dominican Republic with a whim of iron from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, a time Dominicans refer to as the “Era.” Trujillo’s power was absolute, his exercise of it ruthless; he remains in recent memory as one of the waning Latin American military dictators, some of whom have served as models for a number of influential Latin American novels—Miguel Angel Asturias’s El Señor Presidente, Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme, Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State, and Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch. In the Dominican Republic, there is by now a vast archive of the Trujillo era (“Cuando la Era era Era,” “When the Era was an Era,” as Dominicans say). The Dominican historian Bernardo Vega has continued to produce a meticulous episodic history of the Trujillo years, and numerous memoirs and fictional versions have appeared in the intervening time. There is no lack of documents, and there have also been substantial studies and biographies of the period. There is, besides, in that small country a considerable residue of vivid human memory, in Dominicans who survived the Era and have saved much of it in anecdotal form.
Asked in an interview in the Dominican magazine La Vida what led him to write the novel, Vargas Llosa replied as follows:
Well, reading and listening to so many things about Trujillo’s times, and about his personality. That happened in 1975, when I spent some months in the Dominican Republic. And then because of that curiosity, that fascination that Trujillo and his times had for me, obviously because he was an emblematic dictator for a slew of authoritarian military regimes that hung over my childhood and my growing up. No question but that when I went to the Dominican Republic in ‘75, that whole past somehow set off in …