Memories of a Skinny Girl
All long-term dictators are alike: all short-term dictators vanish in their own short way. This at least is the assumption of many writers and readers, and in Latin America it amounts to something like a political faith. Of course there is nothing peculiarly Latin American about dictators of any kind; but Latin Americans often believe, with feelings ranging from outrage to fascination to resignation and back, that their culture has a special ability to beget and abet these creatures, so that they look at them – or at pictures of them – with the stubborn, unavertable gaze of someone looking into a magic mirror. Hence the tradition of dictator novels, a minor genre with major members: Augusto Roa Bastos’s I the Supreme (1974), Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974), Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), and now Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000). The time lag is probably significant, since the latest book is the most literal and least hypnotised of the four. This is a virtue, but not entirely a virtue.
On the last page of I the Supreme the fictional compiler of the text tells us, adapting a sentence from Musil’s Man without Qualities, that ‘the story contained in these Notes consists in the fact that the story which should have been told in it has not been told.’ Or as the Supremo himself says (a version of Dr Francia, the ruler of Paraguay from 1814 to 1840), ‘one cannot tell stories about absolute power.’ The same could be said, with variations, for the Carpentier and García Márquez novels. They caught the myth but not the monster, and they strongly suggest that the monster can’t be caught, that perhaps there is no monster, only the undying myth. For Vargas Llosa the monster is easily inspected, and the myth has been dead for years.
The Feast of the Goat concentrates on the last day of the life of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, long-term dictator of the Dominican Republic, and on the aftermath of his assassination on 30 May 1961. Trujillo, trained as an American marine, had been in power since 1930. He was President more than once, and when he wasn’t he ran the country through a puppet President he nominated. He modernised agriculture and industry, sharpened up the Army, and put an end, through a gruesome massacre, to immigration from Haiti, which occupies the other half of the island known as Hispaniola. The Americans supported him because, as Cordell Hull said, in a phrase since used countless times of other unappealing figures, ‘he was a son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch.’ But by 1961 he wasn’t their son of a bitch any more. He had fallen foul of the Catholic Church, which had issued a Pastoral Letter against the atrocities of his regime; and his Latin American policies, including an attempt on the life of Rómulo Betancourt, the President of Venezuela, had become too wayward for the American Congress, even after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, or perhaps especially after that. The Americans therefore looked kindly on a conspiracy to assassinate Trujillo, but don’t seem to have provided much help beyond a few guns.
The novel has a triple storyline, and the narrative machinery, although skilfully assembled, creaks a bit for the first third or so of the book. We meet Urania Cabral, a Dominican-born woman who is now a New York lawyer. She is staying in a hotel in Santo Domingo, a city which for a long time was called Ciudad Trujillo. The date is 1996, she hasn’t been back to her country since she left in 1961, when she was 14. Her father has had a stroke, but she hasn’t come back to take care of him, or even to worry about him. She’s not really sure why she has come back, since she hasn’t answered letters or telephone calls from any member of her family since she left. Perhaps she has returned to gloat over her father’s impotence and diminution, the once powerful Senator Cabral become a little old invalid. She doesn’t think so, though. ‘Do you despise him? Do you hate him? Still? “Not anymore,” she says aloud.’ She’s still a long way from forgiving him, though. For what? We’ll see in the end, although most readers will have guessed long before all the lurid and shabby details come out.
In the next chapter we meet Trujillo himself. It’s early morning, still dark. A few minutes to go till four o’clock, the time he rises every day. ‘Not a minute before, not a minute after.’ He thinks about his day, himself, politics, the Americans, the Church. He gets up, rides his exercise bike, does another 15 minutes on the rowing machine. He bathes, dresses, and is in his office in the National Palace by five.
Chapter Three brings us the conspirators, or some of the conspirators, four men waiting in a car on the road to San Cristóbal. Trujillo has a country place in San Cristóbal, where he takes, or has brought to him, the compliant young women he needs, and where he is supposed to go that evening. There is plenty of realistic dialogue among the waiting men, and the first of a set of flashbacks. It gives us the story of one of them, telling us how he got here, to this time and place and plot. There are more conspirators in other cars up the road, and more flashbacks to come, once we’ve worked through the other three members of the present group.
The chapters now follow like clockwork, alternating but not exactly cross-cutting, because the separate storylines don’t have much to say to each other: Urania, Trujillo, conspirators, Urania, Trujillo, conspirators, in the same order until quite late in the book, when Trujillo is finally shot, and the conspiracy is followed out into its miserable consequences. Urania visits her father, and talks at him, unravelling her anger and distress, not at all sure whether he understands. Her cousin arrives, a dear companion of her youth, and she goes to dinner with the cousin, the cousin’s mother and some other relatives. She tells them, in spasms, the full story of what happened to her, and why she left. Meanwhile, back in 1961, Trujillo sees his sinister head of intelligence, a senator who is one of his chief advisers, and the puppet President Joaquín Balaguer, later to become a repeatedly elected non-puppet President of the country. He attends a lunch at which his old marine instructor receives a decoration. He takes a walk along the Malecón, and rebukes the head of the Armed Forces because of a dirty sewer he has seen outside an Air Force base. Cleanliness is a mania with him, a model for all discipline. Throughout the day he worries about his bladder, since he has prostate cancer and is prone to leak a little onto his smart suits and uniforms. He remembers a skinny girl and a bad experience he has had with her. We’re pretty sure the skinny girl is the young Urania, but we haven’t collated the dates yet, and we’re not going to get the full account until the last pages. This is one meaning of the novel’s title. Fiesta also means ‘party’ in Spanish, and Trujillo’s panders always tell the girls they are invited to a party. The other meaning of fiesta is ‘feast day’, and refers, of course, to the day the goat is finally sacrificed – although goats are usually sacrificed as representatives of human piety and contrition, rather than for their own goatish sins. Trujillo is looking forward to a sexual encounter of a much more satisfying kind this evening, when he gets to San Cristóbal.
Later the same day, the conspirators, still waiting on the road, are wondering if Trujillo will really come or will have changed his plans, and each duly gets his explanatory flashback. The machinery really creaks here, although the individual stories do build up a satisfyingly intricate picture. Then Trujillo’s car finally appears, he gets shot and killed, and the novel arrives at its truly mesmerising pages. It’s no longer quite a dictator novel at this point, because the dictator is gone; but it is an intensely intelligent political novel, about conspiracy and succession and survival and death. If Vargas Llosa tells us much less about the lure of dictators than the other novelists, takes us less deeply into the ways power is imagined and lived by the people who dream of it and suffer from it, he tells us far more about the details of day-to-day intrigue, and the sordid, sadistic minutiae of torture and murder.
The Urania story continues to hold our attention, and its relevance is now clear. Her father, the Senator, Trujillo’s long-time collaborator, has fallen from favour, been stripped of his post and honours, and had his assets frozen. He doesn’t know why, can’t think what he has done, and is completely desperate, a distinguished, stylish man going to pieces. It’s not surprising that he can’t think what he has done, because he hasn’t done anything, his disfavour is just a whim, a test, an expression of Trujillo’s sense that Senator Cabral is a little too confident. But of course Cabral can’t know this, and wouldn’t believe it if he was told, and he reaches for the ultimate solution, proposed to him by a corrupt old friend of his, also a crony of Trujillo’s: he will offer his daughter to the Goat, and the Goat will forgive him for whatever he has or has not done. We may expect resistance from the young Urania at this point, but she goes along in a daze, and is violently deflowered, although Trujillo turns out to be too impotent to do this through the usual means. His impotence is the source of his lingering memory, even on the day of his death, of the skinny girl who shamed him. Urania flees to the sisters of her convent school, who manage to whisk her out of the country to which she has not returned till now. She has allowed no man to touch her since.
There is a tidy novelistic completeness to this story, and I don’t mean to diminish its horror or the firmness with which Vargas Llosa goes through with the telling of it. But it’s hard, in a historical novel, to think of fictional characters as suffering in quite the same way as the historical ones do, and for me the real triumph of this book lies in its study of two people: José René Román, nicknamed Pupo, the rebuked head of the Armed Forces I’ve already mentioned; and Joaquín Balaguer, the puppet President who ceases to be a puppet, holds the country together, and with the discreet aid of the United States Navy, sees off into exile all the rampaging members of the Trujillo family, widow, sons, daughter, brothers, the lot.
Although he is not waiting on the road, and will not do the actual shooting, Pupo Román is the key figure in the conspiracy. He has agreed that as soon as he is shown Trujillo’s corpse, he will take over, and form a provisional government – he has all his men posted in the appropriate places, and the Armed Forces will follow him. Yet when his colleagues arrive at his house with the corpse, he is not there. When they go to his office, they are denied entry. What has happened? Has he got scared? Has he betrayed them? Neither, we learn, or rather both and neither. He has frozen. He is not afraid, or doesn’t think he is afraid, and he is still dedicated to the conspiracy. But from the moment he learns of Trujillo’s death, shortly before his companions arrive with the corpse, he is in a kind of trance. ‘From that time, and in all the minutes and hours that followed, when his fate was decided, and the fate of his family, the conspirators, and, in the long run, the Dominican Republic, General José René Román always knew with absolute lucidity what he should do. Why did he do exactly the opposite?’ He actually does worse than exactly the opposite: he does the very worst thing he could do. The opposite would have been to go over to Trujillo and save his skin, but the General neither betrays the conspiracy nor acts for it. He sleepwalks through the next several hours, so visibly distraught that everyone knows he must be part of the plot and wonders why he isn’t giving the appropriate orders. He doesn’t die, after appalling tortures, until October 1961, but he still doesn’t know why he failed to act. ‘In the sudden attacks of lucidity that reminded him he was alive, that it hadn’t ended, he tortured himself [literally, ‘martyred himself’] with the same question: why, knowing that this was waiting for you, why didn’t you act as you should have? The question hurt more than the torture he faced with great courage, perhaps to prove to himself that cowardice was not the reason he had acted so indecisively on that endless night of 31 May 1961.’ Was the magnetism of Trujillo too strong, still working its magic from beyond death? Or was Pupo Román a kind of Conradian character, unable to act at a crucial moment because crucial moments, precisely, were not for him, because his sense of their unrepeatable, undeniable importance robbed him of all his usual capacities.
Balaguer, in this context, is Pupo Román’s unmistakable counterpart, the nullity who turned out to be something. Told to resign by Trujillo’s blustering brothers, he politely says he thinks he should remain President until Ramfis Trujillo, the oldest son, returns from Paris. When Ramfis returns, Balaguer makes a deal with him. He, Balaguer, will turn a blind eye while Ramfis exacts his revenge, which consists of the capture and torture of most of the conspirators and the killing of others, as well as the killing of innocent assistants, drivers, guards, so that they will not talk. Only two of the conspirators survive, managing to hide away until the searches and the vengeance are over. In return, Ramfis will keep his family under control, and discreetly steer them out of the country, allowing Balaguer to build a new alliance with the United States and make peace with the Catholic Church, which requires all kinds of gesture towards democracy and above all some severe disavowals of Trujillo and his achievements. Finally, Ramfis too leaves the country. In Vargas Llosa’s account, Balaguer doesn’t put a foot wrong at any stage of this process, and I was so caught up in the immaculate astuteness of his tactics that I almost forgot he was one of the Goat’s closest accomplices for years.
But then this is perhaps where we need to read some of the other dictator novels as well, and to return to the myth, which is significant in its own way. In The Feast of the Goat it is one of the conspirators who speaks of ‘the spell that had kept so many Dominicans devoted, body and soul, to Trujillo’. El encantamiento, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’, ‘bewitchment’. It is Don Quixote’s explanation of so many strange things that have happened to him – except that for him the strange thing is that things are not strange, they have been enchanted back into what looks like banal reality. The trick would be to understand the banality and the enchantment, and I wonder if it’s possible to do both. The conspirators in the novel were, almost all of them, ardent Trujillistas before they turned assassins and national heroes. What ended their enchantment? Vargas Llosa gives us reasons aplenty, but they are all trivial, full of personal offence and easy moralising, quite insufficient to break a real enchantment. So was their enchantment not real, or are these not the real reasons? Perhaps there is a banality of political conversion, as well as a banality of evil.
‘Different time lines run through these chapters,’ Jean Franco says of The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City. ‘The rapid time of modern communications, the frozen time of military dictatorships, the retrospective time of memory, and the strange temporalities of residues and remnants of the past.’ By ‘the lettered city’, a phrase she borrows from the Uruguayan critic Angel Rama, she means the unparalleled influence, over twenty years, of writers on the cultural and political imagination of Latin America. She knows the lettered city was usually doggedly masculine, and managed to forget pretty thoroughly the indigenous populations of the Americas, but she respects its achievements, and she mourns its loss. In a telling quotation she reports the Mexican writer and dissident José Revueltas as saying to her in 1970 that ‘the 20th century has not existed.’ She interprets this as meaning the promises of the Enlightenment and of 19th-century science ended only in the Cold War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But we could say – I think Franco would say – that this is what the 20th century was, and Franco’s book is in effect a grim, expert tour of Latin America’s conversion to neo-liberalism, and its complete loss of its old utopian aspirations. The novels of the Boom of the 1960s were deeply engaged with problems of development, she says (‘more than anything they are staged at the moment when people no longer believe the fantasy of progress and development but act as if they do’), and she has excellent pages on Roa Bastos, Fuentes, García Márquez, Cortazar, and especially Onetti. She also has just and subtle things to say about Neruda and his poetic gifts and his romantic Stalinism, and she finds literary and political hope in the work of writers like the Mexican Carlos Monsiváis and the Chilean Diamela Eltit. But overall the story gets worse, and Franco speaks in her last paragraph of ‘the shoals of present difficulties’, and of ‘the many versions of utopia that have foundered over the last forty years’. The Feast of the Goat, I’m afraid, can only confirm her view. She calls Vargas Llosa, in his political career, ‘the Newt Gingrich of Peru, a rebel against statism and champion of hegemonic capitalism and the free market against prevailing leftist opinion’. This is a little harsh, and the novel doesn’t show any of this. It doesn’t deny any of it either. The end of Trujillo did not mean the end of atrocity in the Dominican Republic or anywhere else. But with the narrowing and hardening of the regime in Castro’s Cuba and the general collapse of the Latin American Left, it did offer an early warning that corrupt, conservative, agile, American-supported democracies were going to be the region’s best deal for some time to come. Vargas Llosa might not call it a warning. It is significant that The Feast of the Goat stops well before the American invasion of the Dominican Republic in June 1965.
THE FEAST OF THE GOAT
By Mario Vargas Llosa
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
Translated by Edith Grossman
ISBN # 0-374-15476-7
Comments by Bob Corbett
Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliantly constructed picture of the last days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic is a riveting account, set inside a sad and touching family drama. The novel flows back and forth from a 1996 visit to Santo Domingo by Dr. Urania Cabral, and 1961, the year she left the DR and the year of Trujillo’s assassination.
The personal story of a family tragedy within the Cabral family is fictional, sad, troubling and brilliantly told by Llosa. The flashback scenes of many events in 1961, while fictionally reconstructed are mainly historical using the real men of the time as characters.
The novel begins with Urania’s arrival back in Santo Domingo in 1996, not quite sure why she is there, but desperately needing to confront her father over events in their family life in 1961 when he sent her to the U.S. to study, just a 15 year old girl. Her mother had died when she was very young and her doting father was a high ranking figure in Trujillo’s government. However, a terrible break between Urania and her father has dominated the 35 years since she left, and a severe cerebral hemorrhage ten years earlier has left him in a vegetative state. Since 1961 Urania has succeeded well in her work world, graduating from a convent school to which he sent her, then Harvard University and a rather spectacular career in international finance. Yet she has had absolutely no contact with her father or any other family member since 1961 despite countless letters and phone calls from their side. However, she is now back and even though her 83 year old invalid father has no ability to communicate with her, and probably no ability to understand her, she desperately needs this confrontation.
Perhaps the most spectacular writing of the novel is Llosa’s treatment of her father. On her own view she realizes he only understands 5 – 10% of what she’s saying and that for just a few moments with most likely no memory of it after that. But she can’t stop the tirade she’s kept bottled inside her for more than 30 years. Llosa’s handling of the father – his grunts, an ambiguous mouth movement, a laugh (?) – all of it is filled with uncertainty, ambiguity and she can’t quite read it or understand it. It’s an incredible job of writing this silent father.
Much of the story emanates from his work with and position in the Trujillo government, and as she is talking to her father about the father – daughter relationship, Llosa takes us back to 1961 and even earlier, to situate the whole story inside the Trujillo dictatorship.
The treatment of the Trujillo government and plot leading to his assassination is marvelously constructed with alternating chapters of the 1996 visit between father and daughter, to the turmoil of the early 1961 events.
Llosa makes us feel the conflicting emotions of those in Trujillo’s inner-most circle – feelings toward him of an almost god-like figure, yet the terrible fear and hatred of him; feelings of greed and enjoyment of power, yet the realization that the direction of the country is destroying any possibility of decent life there, even for them. The re-creation of the mind-set within these high circles of Trujillistas is gripping, sad and chilling. Llosa is a wonderful story teller.
I came to the novel knowing relatively little of the details of the Trujillo regime, but knowing much more about the Duvalier dictatorship in next door Haiti and especially of the famous 1937 slaughter of Haitians who were living in the Dominican Republic. However, from several dozen accounts of the massacre which I had read in Haitian sources and U.S. newspaper accounts and scholars from the U.S. I had always understood it as a horror story of brutal murders of innocent and helpless Haitians. Thus I was astonished when I read Urania’s father’s account, which he cited in 1961 when defending Trujillo’s actions:
You can say what you like about the Chief [Trujillo]. History, at least, will recognize that he has created a modern country, and put the Haitian in their place. “Great ills demand great remedies!” The Chief found a small country barbarized by wars among the caudillos, a country without law and order, impoverished, losing its identity, invaded by its starving, ferocious neighbors. They waded across the Masacre River and came to steal goods, animals, houses, they took the jobs of our agricultural workers, perverted our Catholic religion with their diabolical witchcraft, violated our women, ruined our Western Hispanic culture, language, and customs, imposed their African savagery on us. The Chief cut the Gordian knot: “Enough!” Great ills demand great remedies! He not only justified the massacre of Haitians in 1937; he considered it a great accomplishment of the regime. Didn’t he save the Republic from being prostituted a second time by that marauding neighbor? What do five, ten, twenty thousand Haitians matter when it’s a question of saving an entire people?”
Not only was I utterly astonished to read that account of the massacre, but it was chilling to me how little would have to be changed in that description to make it sound like so many contemporary Americans talking about the undocumented workers from Mexico who are in the U.S.
Later in the novel there is an entire chapter about the Haitian massacre of 1937 which is in the same vein as the quote I cited.
If we jump to the 1996 period of Urania’s story, there is another section that simply astounded me. Llosa so accurately captures the forgetfulness of people about life under dictators. Again, I didn’t know the details of the Trujillo dictatorship before reading this novel, but I know them in great detail about the Duvalier father-son dictatorship in Haiti, and the details aren’t very different.
Llosa has the young nurse who is caring for Urania’s father make this comment about the Dominica Republic in 1996 – I’ve heard almost these same words about today's Haiti as well --
[The nurse was 4 when Trujillo died] “Well I mean” – the woman is trying to be agreeable – “he might have been a dictator and everything else they say about him, but people seemed to live better back then. Everybody had jobs and there wasn’t so much crime….”
[The narrator then comments:] “Perhaps it was true that because of the disastrous governments that came afterward, many Dominicans missed Trujillo. Now they had forgotten the abuses, the murders, the corruption, the spying, the isolation, the fear: horror had become myth. Everybody had jobs and there wasn’t so much crime.”
The novel is a gripping read. It bares the evil and terror of the Trujillo regime in merciless detail. I would recommend the book to all. It is not only a phenomenal story; it is fine literature in the bargain.
The Feast of the Goat .
Mario Vargas Llosa
(Translated by Edith Grossman)
Review by David Klopfenstein
In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, waves of political anxiety spread throughout the Cold War Americas. The authoritarian excesses of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the long standing military dictator of the Dominican Republic, suddenly were seen as an embarrassing political liability, an invitation to and excuse for Communist revolution. In June 1960, Trujillo damaged his reputation even further when his government orchestrated an attempt upon the life of Venezuelan president Romulo Betancourt, in response to Betancourt’s denunciations of Trujillo before the Organization of the American States. The nations of the OAS responded by severing relations with the Dominican government and imposing crippling economic sanctions. To make matters worse, in January 1960 the country’s Catholic bishops, previously staunch allies of the regime, inaugurated a long-running campaign of dissent by having a Pastoral letter read in every parish of the strongly Catholic country. Kennedy’s government in Washington offered Trujillo repeated enticements to step down, but the Generalissimo was entrenched, replying “you can come in here with the navy or even the atomic bomb, but I’ll never go out of here unless I go out on a stretcher.” The United States government, whose military training had given Trujillo’s career its start, now began to make the contacts among Dominican dissidents that culminated in Trujillo’s assassination on May 30, 1961.
The Feast of the Goat, the most recent novel by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, is an ambitious work, a literary portrait of Trujillo and his assassins blending fact and fiction and spanning the better part of the century. Vargas Llosa uses the fateful date of Trujillo’s murder as the epicenter for a network of interconnected shockwaves, multiple stories that converge on Trujillo’s assassination and radiate backward into the past and forward into the future. Our experience of the central event is immediate – we are with the dictator on this, his last day, immersed in his thoughts as his mind moves rancorously back and forth from things still within his grasp to those newly outside his power. Although much of his time is spent reflecting on events from his past, he moves cagily through a series of meetings with various officials towards an anticipated sexual assignation planned for that evening. We also endure the tense hours of that same May 30, 1961, with his assassins, waiting in a souped-up Chevy for Trujillo’s car to bring the dictator into their sights. As the quartet of conspirators engage in a long, testy conversation, each digresses internally on the history of how, from a career of serving Trujillo, he came to be waiting to assassinate him. And finally, we are in the present-day Dominican Republic with the middle-aged woman Urania Cabral. Returning to the island after thirty years of exile, the fictional Urania attends to her dying father, once a member of Trujillo’s inner circle. Now a successful attorney at the World Bank, Urania has buried the trauma of her past by dedicating herself obsessively to her career. Talking to her mute, infirm father and dining with cousins she’s not contacted in three decades, she finally begins to explore her own feelings as she confronts the circumstances of her exile. As the novel progresses through a series of internal monologues and flashbacks, this trio of central plot-lines are wound together like the strands of a cord, each slowly frayed open to reveal the glittering sub-strands of even more overlapping stories.
The novel’s structure sets up a deft counterpoint among its intertwined timeframes, characters and events. Its strands and sub-strands are linked together by “touch points”– events, people and ideas first mentioned by one character are later mirrored by a different character, reflecting their different points of view and throwing their interpretations into relief. Through this almost cubist approach, Vargas Llosa invests his subjects and events with multiple levels of meaning, elegantly conveying the complexities of reality. To cite one example of such adept compression, Urania’s teenage flight from the Dominican Republic is told through a juxtaposed narration that takes place simultaneously in two decades: As she reveals her story to her astonished cousins in the Santo Domino of the 1990s, at the same time, and sometimes in the same paragraph, the narrative leaps to 1961, telling the episode from the point of view of her distraught father. Through an overlapping series of perspectives, Varga Llosa builds up a multivalent image of the Dominican Republic’s troubled past: the slaughter of 25,000 Haitian immigrants in 1937, the murder of the dissident Mirabel sisters, the turncoat bishops with their Pastoral letter, the invasion of Dominican Exiles on June 14 1959 and the enduring, clandestine, “June 14” dissident movement. These historical events serve to add a sense of gravitas to the novel as well, but Vargas Llosa wisely bypasses unwieldy explications that would encumber his nimble, intricate structure: in the age of the postmodern novel and the Internet, an allusion is worth a thousand words. The actual events themselves are not as important to the novel as the way they engage the characters, setting up the interplay between Urania’s obsessively researched but emotionally damaged point of view, the embittered, desperate or idealistic determination of the conspirators, and the bile-filled imagination of the relentlessly martial Trujillo.
Of course, the Generalissimo remains the novel's center of gravity, and his presence is profoundly felt, even when he is off-stage. Vargas Llosa presents a portrait of the aging but still enormously powerful Trujillo as an ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, abusive tyrant; relentlessly disciplined yet given to melodrama, cynically manipulative, perpetually suspicious, and even at age 69, inclined to the preoccupation with sex that earned him the nickname of “Goat.” When we first see him, the dissenting bishops are on his mind, a thought that nearly blinds him with rage – he must stop dressing in order to collect himself. After checking his anger, he congratulates himself on his self-mastery: his zealous self-discipline, expressed also by his obsessively clean and pressed uniforms, unyielding routines, and fanatical punctuality, is at the center of his mania with order and control. After mastering his moment of wrath he dwells for a moment on another aspect of that control, the sheer pleasure of wielding that rage, how “when he let loose the flood of his rage no dam could contain it.” What Trujillo relishes above all else is the uncontested impact of his will.
Continuously on the watch for dissent and conspiracy within his realm, Trujillo must also contend with pressure from Washington and denunciations from Dominican exiles. But the rebellion that brings him the most dismay is more personal: his failing prostate causes him constant anxiety over embarrassing, unplanned urinations; and even worse, he can no longer depend on effective erections. The revolt of his own penis – private, though at all times threatening to betray him publicly – is the only thing in Trujillo’s world that is completely beyond the reach of his will. He entreats God for help with his planned tryst: “I don’t care about the priests, the gringos, the conspirators, the exiles. I can clear all that shit away myself. But I need your help to fuck that girl.” A difficult admission for one who sees sex as yet another extension of unbridled power – the “Goat” revels in the unabashed freedom with which he selects his bedmates, from compasinas to the wives and daughters of his officials. His priapism colors even his foreign policy. While his sons instill in him only profound disappointment, he reassures himself with the thought of his ambassador, the infamous Porfirio Rubirossa, “the Dominican known all over the world for the size of his prick and his prowess as an international cocksman…what better propaganda for the Dominican Republic than a cocksman like him?”
Like García Márquez’s nameless Patriarch, the more repellent Trujillo becomes, the more fascinating we find his world. The Feast of the Goat is at its most absorbing when exploring the brutal mechanisms of this entrenched, dictatorial power; the result of three interlocking factors: Trujillo’s diabolical charisma, his unquestioned control over every governmental and civilian office in the country, and the patterns of domination ingrained into the psychology of those around him. Repeatedly we are told of Trujillo’s high-pitched, commanding voice, and of his eyes that hypnotize, making their victims feel penetrated, searched and exposed. He enjoys an unquestioned right to appropriate and dispense property, not at the service of simply amassing wealth (though he has enormous riches, he disparages the avarice of his sons and his wife), but as an instrument of control. He bemusedly recalls sending an aide with a check to purchase at a “ridiculously low price” the prized ranch of one of his generals; not only does the general obediently turn over the ranch for less than the value of a single cow, he thanks the Generalissimo for considering the ranch worthy of his attention. After doing the same thing to the same general a few years later, Trujillo rewards him for his loyalty and allows him to make his money back by granting him the sole concession for importing mixers and washing machines. Partly a test of the general’s loyalty, partly a demand for the proper deference and humility deserved by the “Benefactor of the Nation,” the episode demonstrates his complete disdain for and abuse of the men in his closest circle – men who are senators, generals, accomplished high officials of great power themselves, but whose power and whose very lives are held in Trujillo’s grasp. Having long since ceded their authority to make any decisions of their own, and having been so thoroughly trained to gladly accept abuse, the highest ranking officials of the nation are robbed of their will, their honor, and their sense of self. When Trujillo suddenly strips away the offices of Augustin Cabral, the father of Urania and a close Trujillo aide, Cabral responds not with rage at the groundlessness of his Kafkaesque punishment, but with the directionless terror of a child who has lost his parent. With no honor or sense of self outside of that granted him by the Chief, Cabral shows himself worthy of the most despicable actions as he attempts to place himself back in Trujillo’s favor, actions which reverberate 30 years later in the troubled psyche of his adult daughter. Even when one of Trujillo’s men has the courage to conspire in secret against him, the psychological domination he exerts can render him incapable of action. Trujillo berates and humiliates one of his generals, ‘Pupo’ Román, over a leaking sewer pipe at an Air Base entrance, and afterward Román muses at his own response: “before Trujillo his valor and sense of honor disappeared…he often asked himself why the mere presence of the Chief…annihilated him morally.” By arrangement with the conspirators, upon seeing Trujillo’s dead body, Román had agreed to take control of the government. But after the assassination, he watches, detatched and distant, missing every opportunity to insert himself in the ensuing vacuum of power. As if a will other than his own has seized control of his actions, Román knowingly does the opposite of everything needed to effectively claim authority.
As we see with Román and the Cabrals, the mechanisms of Trujillo’s control are insinuated so deeply that they function even after his death. One of the book’s most gripping chapters recounts the mortally perilous aftermath of the Chief’s assassination, tracking the convoluted maneuvers of the main players as they jockey for political power: Johnny Abbes, head of Trujillo’s secret police; Blacky and Petàn, Trujillo’s thuggish, machine-gun waving brothers; Ramfis, his dissipated, neurotic son; and Joaquin Balaguer, the titular president; all have their roles to play, enacting a grisly coda after Trujillo’s assassination brings the curtain down on his reign. As history shows, the diminutive, cerebral Balaguer prevails, exiling the Trujillos and the monstrous Abbes, and transforming himself from a figurehead into “an authentic head of state.” In the novel, his list of accomplishments is impressive. He mends relations with the Catholic church, permits timid but increasing amounts of internal dissent, sets the stage for the easing of international sanctions, and even enrages the surviving Trujillos by criticizing the Generalissimo before the United Nations. The reader feels a welcome sense of relief that the abusive Trujillo regime is over, looking hopefully at the resolution finally coming into view. But beyond the novel, history proves this sense of resolution to be deceptive, and Vargas Llosa’s decision not to follow Balaguer past this point invites an ironic relationship to actual later developments: a few months after the events of this chapter, Balaguer was ousted from the presidency and driven into a three-year exile. Upon returning to the Dominican Republic in 1965, he resumed the presidency and governed with the iron-handed tactics of Trujillo himself, repressing journalists and leftists, using the military to rule the country, and dominating political life until his death at age 95 (which occurred only recently, in July 2002).
But the story of Balaguer is ultimately not how Vargas Llosa chooses to illustrate the sad legacy of Trujillo; he abandons this historical storyline in favor of focusing on the fictional Urania Cabral. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the Urania episodes are not among the novel’s best. In order to balance the larger-than-life monstrousness of Trujillo and the tragedy of the conspirators, Vargas Llosa paints Urania’s personal tragedy in very broad, melodramatic strokes. As a result, she never develops much nuance or depth to give substance to her emotional wounds. Although her struggle in facing the demons of her past provides an additional narrative window into that turbulent time, her psychologically-centered story is both less credible and less compelling than the portraits of power framed by the rest of the book.
Unsurprisingly, it’s in the intensity of these portrayals that The Feast of the Goat comes most vibrantly to life, its interlocking dramas of politics, corruption, and betrayal acted out on a broad stage and masterfully directed by Vargas Llosa. There is a mythic quality to these characters and their actions that upstages the story of Urania, bestowing a sense of relevance to an otherwise tangled and tragic reality. Vargas Llosa, in a 1998 New York Times essay, describes how a novel may transform reality in such a way that “life takes on a discernible meaning.” This transformation is certainly evident in the novelized history of The Feast of the Goat, in which the messy, shapeless mass of history is wrought into a cohesive set of stories with resolution, dénouement, and irony. It is clear that Vargas Llosa, who once offered himself as a presidential candidate, feels that the meanings of these stories can again be returned to the worlds of history and politics.
26 March 2003
A thug's life
John Sturrock on The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa's portrait of a dictator
Spanish-American novelists have had good reason, sad to say, to write dictator novels, and two rather different ways in which to go about it. The first is to abstract from the historical experience of any one country and treat the contagion of caciquismo in imaginary terms, as it might have taken hold anywhere in South and Central America - Miguel Angel Asturias, Augusto Roa Bastos, Alejo Carpentier and García Márquez have all in their time done this to powerful effect. A second way is that followed by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in The Feast of the Goat , which is to descend to street level in a spirit of togetherness and recreate the circumstances in which one actual dictator met a violent death in a real country. There's nothing remotely allegorical about the story as it's told here, in very concrete terms, but it's not hard either to take this particular Strong Man as standing for the rest of his grisly cousinhood.
The dictator in question is Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, an army officer who seized power in the Dominican Republic in 1930 and held on to it, with increasing savagery and the predictable support, for most of the time, of the United States, until he was assassinated in a roadside shootout 31 years later. In the novel at least, the assassination is the work of a small group who have suffered more than most from the viciousness of the regime. It happens not as a denouement but halfway through, as a crisis, since Trujillo's long-overdue removal opens the way for politics of a less lethal sort to resume in the Republic. Vargas Llosa pursues the story through the immediate and psychotic aftermath, when Trujillo's playboy son, Ramfis - named, grotesquely, for the high priest in Aida - returns from his career of well-funded lechery in Paris to torture at length and put to death everyone suspected of involvement in his father's death, along, if need be, with their relatives.
By way of relief from the nastiness of this bloodbath, there's also the succession to power of Joaquín Balaguer, a puppet president under Trujillo who has kept in favour through three decades by never letting it be known what he was really thinking or feeling, but who can now come into his own as a sinuous pragmatist, able finally to bribe the remnants of the kleptocratic Trujillo clan to go into exile.
This is an ambitious novel, as sure-footed as it is graphic in integrating the private aspects of daily life in the Trujillo years with the public, or hypothetical motives with real events. Of all the Spanish American novelists I've read, Vargas Llosa is far and away the most convinced and accomplished realist; and he's at his strongest in The Feast of the Goat . There's a great deal of hard detail in the book, as it takes to the various neighbourhoods of the Republic's capital city, Ciudad Trujillo (né Santo Domingo), itemising what and where people eat and drink, the music they like, and all the rest of it. There are also references back in time to key episodes from recent Dominican history: the massacres of the Afro-American Haitians, who became economic migrants in the 1930s; the foiling of an attempted landing in 1960 by Castroites; the all-important relationship with the US, which turned disastrously sour for Trujillo after he went too far and tried to have the reformist president of Venezuela, Rómulo Betancourt, assassinated.
The danger of recreating local life in such fullness and with so many named characters involved, some historical, some presumably not, is that the novel's scope will seem too broad and restless for its own good, that it will lack an emotional centre. To guard against that, Vargas Llosa has allowed the story to be precipitated by the return to her native island of Urania Cabral, who was smuggled out by nuns as a sexually traumatised 14-year-old and whose father was one of Trujillo's unloveliest hangers-on, all the more squalid for having once been someone of culture.
Now, 35 years later and for the very first time, she has come back, a World Bank lawyer, to visit her father, lying speechless in bed after a stroke, in case she has it in her to forgive him for what he helped to do to his country, and to her. She doesn't; blood tie or no, the civilised world and the barbaric are not to be reconciled.
Vargas Llosa was never a behaviourist: he not only has people doing things, but tells us what they're thinking before and as they do them. Such all-inclusive impersonation is fine when the character is a Urania Cabral, say, or one or other of Trujillo's associates, or a young officer plotting his end. It's more questionable when the thoughts we're let in on are those of Trujillo himself, or of someone being tortured to death in a prison cell. The dictator's thoughts are of a nature necessarily only further to incriminate him, and thus do more to simplify than to explore the psychology of a tyrant; and as for the torture victim, what's happening to him is unspeakable, beyond any writer's power to react to it from within. This apart, The Feast of the Goat comes closer than is altogether pleasant to conveying what it would be like to have your conditions of life determined by the whims of an erratic and vainglorious thug like Trujillo.