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 me a fierce curiosity, and gave me the idea of a novel of that time, but of that time as a lived experience.
In the Dominican Republic, Trujillo is still a presence, cropping up often in conversation (“Pero cuando Trujillo…,” “Now in Trujillo’s time…”), still in the air. I spent a dozen winters in that country, in its most remote province, and I absorbed both its ways and its history, by reading available texts, but more by listening to my neighbors. Most of them neither read nor wrote, but they were nothing if not eloquent. At some distance from a town, we lived by the chisme, the local gossip network along which news was passed, most often transformed and domesticated in its passing—my neighbors referred to it as Radio Bemba, “Radio Lip.”
From these same neighbors, I heard many stories of Trujillo’s time, and particularly memories of his two pompous visits to the province. What mostly caught my attention was the habit the men had of lowering their voices whenever they talked about Trujillo. With that more than anything, I felt something of the chill of his continuing presence. The anecdotes were undoubtedly inflated in the imagination and in the telling, but they had an unforgettable mixture of awe and helplessness about them, an overall dread that can never quite be conveyed by facts or texts, but recurs in lived memory.
The Trujillo years were in themselves the stuff of fiction. Externally, they had about them a grandiosity, an obsession with show, with public ostentation. The dictator’s megalomania was enshrined in buildings and monuments, in icons and photographs, in public rituals, in his fastidious collection of private uniforms, and in the ubiquitous presence of his name and his shadow. He was a cult in himself, known in turn as the Father of the Country, ultimately as the Benefactor. He was also seen in the popular eye as the great machista, the insatiable sexual conqueror of women. The army was his. The Treasury was his. The country was his. Plots and counterplots abounded, but his ruthlessly efficient secret police put a quick end to opposition. As the campesinos still say, there was no crime in the pueblos, the price of bread did not rise; but the far reaches of the country were cowed into an awed obedience, a worshipful terror.
What is first remarkable about The Feast of the Goat is the prodigious amount of work that has gone into the writing—Vargas Llosa spent over three years working on it, and he has made himself familiar with every setting, every atmosphere, every circumstance, every fact in Trujillo’s fervid history. None of this absorbed information is wasted; instead, it is stitched invisibly into flashes of memory, conversations, arguments, meditations, all by different characters, throughout the book. The filmic changes of scene that shift the reader’s attention are wonderfully managed. The incidents for which Trujillo was most notorious—the abduction and subsequent murder of Jesús de Galíndez, a Basque and a Columbia University instructor, who had written ill of Trujillo, from the New York streets; the horrendous massacre in 1937 of more than 15,000 Haitians, caught on the wrong side of the border, by Dominican troops; the murder of the dissident Mirabal sisters—are all there in variously recollected detail. The novel is, without setting out to be, a startlingly full condensation of the whole Trujillo era, in a welter of lived detail.
Detail, however, does not in any way impede the anxiety of the novel’s forward movement. There are three vantage points, three centers of attention, revolving around three sets of characters, and they alternate in our preoccupations over the book’s twenty-four chapters. The first is that of the fictional Urania Cabral, a Dominican-born woman in her late forties who works as a lawyer in New York, and has returned to Santo Domingo from an obstinate, self-imposed exile for the first time in thirty-five years to confront her past. The second is that of Trujillo himself, whom the narrative follows through the conversations, confrontations, recollections, and celebrations that make up the working day in 1961 which will end with his assassination. The third is that of the group of conspirators, each with his own distinct motive for wanting to kill Trujillo, waiting in pursuit cars by the Malecón, the seawalk in Santo Domingo, where the dictator’s car will pass, they have been assured, later that evening.
These three narrative threads—Urania’s painful recovery of her past, Trujillo’s machinations with his ministers, advisers, and suppliants throughout one unwinding day, and the unbearable tensions and desperation of the waiting conspirators—all slowly converge in the novel, in melodramatic detail. The book has all the tensions of a doomed adventure, all the murk of plot and conspiracy, of constant fear and ultimate horror.
For the first half of the book, the three threads alternate chapters regularly. But after Trujillo is killed, the assassins’ stories take on a dominating momentum: Trujillo’s sections stop, Urania’s are suspended, and the narrative follows the conspirators as they face the terrible consequences of Trujillo’s death. The fear that runs through the book does not disappear with Trujillo’s murder; instead it remains in the air and takes a brutal revenge.
The book is not simply a recreation of Trujillo, although it does give him a precise and detailed past and a presence full of ruthless self-belief and cruelty but also a secret shame; it is more a demonstration of his utter domination of an entire society, and of the many ambiguous reactions to his absolute power within that society, imprisoned by its own fear, abused, violated, and silenced. What Vargas Llosa has done in The Feast of the Goat is to fulfill precisely the intention he expressed in his La Vida interview, namely, to recover the time of Trujillo in writing “as a lived experience.” In that he has been excruciatingly successful; some of his small episodes are hard to bear in their cruelties. They wear the additional horror of having happened.
The pervasive fear of Trujillo that hangs over the events of The Feast of the Goat, and the accompanying shame of being humiliated by him, intrude into Urania’s memories, into the ponderings of the assassins waiting in the car, and into the dictator’s icy confrontations with ministers and supplicants. Trujillo, on the day of his assassination, was dealing with mounting crises in his republic. Because of his brutal record, he had been ostracized by the countries of Latin America and sanctions had been voted against him by the Organization of American States. His excesses had become an embarrassment to the United States, despite his frequent tactical protestations of anticommunism and his proximity to revolutionary Cuba. He has also been newly defied by the Church, which he had previously taken pains to placate. He has premonitions of an ending, of the fading of his power. But what Trujillo most fears is that he is losing power over his own body—at seventy, the dictator whose fastidiousness and virility are themselves renowned and feared has become incontinent and impotent:
And at that moment, like the blow of a club to his head, he was seized by doubt…. There it was: the dark stain covered his fly and part of his right leg. It must have been recent, it was still damp, at this very moment his insensible bladder was still leaking. He didn’t feel it, he wasn’t feeling it. A lashing rage shook him. He could dominate men, bring three million Dominicans to their knees, but he could not control his bladder.
It is the character of Urania Cabral, however, whose return to the Dominican Republic provides the occasion for recalling the events of the past, and it is she who brings the novel to its expiatory ending. A driven lawyer—formerly at the World Bank and now living a successful, solitary life in Manhattan—Urania is deemed coldhearted by both the suitors she rejects and the family in the Dominican Republic whose letters she leaves unanswered. The one link she had allowed herself was reading voraciously about the Trujillo era in her spare time. Now, back in Santo Domingo, where “her steps, not her will” lead her along the streets to her childhood home, she wonders:
Were you right to come back? You’ll be sorry, Urania. Wasting a week’s vacation, when you never had time to visit all the cities, regions, countries you would have liked to see—returning to the island you swore you’d never set foot on again. A symptom of decline? The sentimentality of age? Curiosity, nothing more. To prove to yourself you can walk along the streets of this city that is no longer yours, travel through this foreign country and not have it provoke sadness, nostalgia, hatred, bitterness, rage in you. Or have you come to confront the ruin of your father? To learn what effect seeing him has on you, after so many years.
The scenes in which the bitter, wounded, taunting Urania confronts her father, who has suffered a stroke, strangely echo those of Trujillo wielding power over his underlings. Speaking both aloud to her father and to herself, Urania recreates her childhood, as the only daughter of the widowed Agustín Cabral, one of Trujillo’s close advisers, and president of the Senate. Suddenly, he is denounced in the “Foro Público,” the newspaper column Trujillo made use of to indicate changes in his favors.
Deprived of all his posts, facing ruin, Cabral was desperate to recover the dictator’s goodwill. Urania was then fourteen, beautiful, intelligent, a favorite of the nuns. A former friend of Cabral’s who is still close to Trujillo suggests to Cabral that he might offer his daughter for a private fiesta at the Casa Caoba, Trujillo’s country retreat. Urania is coaxed into accepting. Her subsequent rape has changed her life—the nuns manage to send her out of the country, and she has turned her back on it until this return. In the book’s last chapter, she recounts the precise events of that evening to her aged aunt, her two muddle-headed cousins, and her young niece. She spares no detail. It is as if she’s describing the violation of her entire country. Although Urania begins as an obviously fictional character, a stand-in for the novelist, as she reconnects with place and past, she becomes a crucial decipherer of that past, which has haunted and desexed her. In doing so, she grows increasingly sympathetic to the reader as an inquisitor, a clarifier, and a humanizing presence.
In April of last year, a few weeks after La Fiesta del Chivo appeared in Spanish, Vargas Llosa came to Santo Domingo for the formal presentación of his novel. It had been devoured by Dominican readers, and fiercely discussed and reviewed in the press, not always favorably. Some critics searched the text for factual errors, brandishing them like bloodied scalps. Others resented the intrusion of fictional characters like Urania Cabral into a novel that one critic called “more history than fiction, since the great majority of its characters were real, some of them still living.”
Shortly afterward, the historian Bernardo Vega published a precise list of the thirty-eight errors he discovered in the book, most of them fairly minor—misplaced dates, mistaken affiliations. He quoted García Márquez’s remark that for the Latin American writer, the problem is to make the reality credible, for reality is a better writer than they are. While Dominicans talk about the “Era” among themselves, they are sensitive to the intrusion of outside opinion. In a sense, they have concealed the realities of the Era of Trujillo from themselves, avoiding the shame of having been governed by him. Throughout their long history, the inhabitants of the island have been victimized by intrusions from outside, and they have inherited the psychology of victims. It is their mute complicity with the inflated fictions of the long Trujillo years that still perplexes them, as has Vargas Llosa’s unsparing version.
When Vargas Llosa appeared before an audience of some eight hundred people in Santo Domingo last April, he was in his element, poised, lucid, on his own ground, and he made the case for his fiction with an im-passioned eloquence. Past events are inevitably altered by the perspectives of time, and by their transformations into language; it was the novelist’s function, he felt, to humanize past events as lived experiences, to make a present sense of them. Vargas Llosa showed that evening how thoroughly he has digested Borges. He is, in Borges’s sense, a ficcionero, a maker of fictions, which is to say, a maker of meanings. As he writes in his celebrated essay on the subject, “The Truth of Lies,”
Novels have a beginning and an end and even in the most formless and intermittent of them, life takes on a meaning that we can perceive because they give us a perspective that real life, in which we are immersed, always denies us. This order is an invention, an addition by the novelist, a simulator who seems to recreate life whereas in truth he is amending it. Sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally, fiction betrays life, encapsulating it in a weft of words which reduces its scale and makes it accessible to the reader. This reader can therefore judge it, understand it, and above all live it, with an impunity that real life does not allow.
He must have been gratified by the intelligent and enthusiastic response of the very audience whose reality he had amended. As we were leaving, a Dominican friend took me aside. “For us Dominicans,” he said to me, “this evening was nothing short of an exorcism.”
The group of seven conspirators in the novel all have their separate reasons for their desperate venture, their separate shames. Should it succeed, everything would depend on General Roman, the head of the armed forces, who had agreed to initiate a coup on seeing Trujillo’s body. Agonizingly, the plot falters, and the conspirators are at once on the run, hunted by the secret police and, except for two who go into protracted hiding, are run down, imprisoned, and tortured. It has always seemed to me that torture is almost an inadmissible territory to writers of fiction, which is to say that it is beyond the imagination. To be made believable, it must have happened. García Márquez has a note on dealing with violence in the novel in volume four of his Obra Periodistica, his collected journalism:
Probably the greatest error of those who have tried to put violence into words has been rather through inexperience or voracity, to get a hold of leaves rather than the root. Overwhelmed by the available material, they are consumed by the descriptions of massacres, without stopping to ask themselves which matters more in the human and literary sense, the dead, or the living? The exhaustive inventory of decapitations and castrations, of women raped, of genitals and intestines ripped out, and the minute description of the cruelty of these violations, does not lead to fiction. The drama lies more in the pervasive terror brought on by these crimes. The novel arises not from the disemboweled dead but in those still alive, who must in hiding continually feel the icy sweat of fear, knowing that with every heartbeat they run the risk of being themselves disemboweled. Yet those who have confronted such violence and have lived to tell it have not realized that the novel lies not in what happened previously, but rather in the traces of it they feel inside themselves….
Vargas Llosa knows this well—his chapters on the flight of the conspirators, with Trujillo dead and the coup failed, are of a chilling intensity. Following their capture, they are subjected to vicious torture. These passages in The Feast of the Goat are excruciating to read, yet they have their own authenticity. Because he has been scrupulous about facts, here as elsewhere he gives whatever he touches the authority of the real. For most of his writing life, his preoccupation has been not with human rights so much as with human wrongs. Human rights are abstractions. Human wrongs are more easily recognizable: they are visible and tangible, their measure our shame and our indignation—if the wrongs are our own, shame; if they are the wrongs of others, indignation and horror, as we have been learning of late.
Like most of the Latin American writers of his generation, Vargas Llosa has a past of fervent movie-going, and a writing mind that has made full use in novels of the sudden shifts of perspective that can happen so easily on the screen. In novels as crowded with incident as The Feast of the Goat, he is in a sense the novelist-as-director. His most admired novel to date, The War of the End of the World, began as a screenplay in the mid-Seventies, and later grew into the majestic novel it became. I translated that screenplay, which was already the blueprint for a much more ambitious piece of writing. The film was never made; the novel usurped it and took its place. While I was reading La Fiesta del Chivo, I realized that the novel has already been envisioned as a film, so carefully and precisely placed are its scenes, its flashbacks, its conversations. The cruel theatricality of the Trujillo era almost demands the screen, as Vargas Llosa is well aware. The Feast of the Goat is its own screenplay. It deserves to be a terrifyingly good film, for it already is, in written form.
November 29, 2001