The Feast of the Goat

by JDP

A unique and challenging read that pushes the boundaries of historical fiction and defies traditional narrative structures. Fledgling interests in Latin America will be stoked by Vargas Llosa’s deft handling of a country’s political history that doubles as a thought-provoking exploration of memory, personality, and morality.

Mario Vargas Llosa / Peruvian / 2001 / 404 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

The political history of my country is not terribly complicated. Never once, despite numerous assassinations of high level public figures, was the political apparatus – or the country itself – seriously threatened. When the president is killed, the vice president assumes command. When a Senate seat is vacated, a snap election picks the candidate to fill it. When one presidential administration reaches the end of its tenure, another takes its place in January. These processes constitute one of the main advantages democratic rule holds over its authoritarian counterparts: the dependable, peaceful succession of rulers. An American’s understanding of the alternative – the unmitigated maelstrom that is the replacement of a undemocratic dictator – is sparse. Perhaps this is why I found Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat so terrifying. Due to the author’s fastidious management of details, artful integration of fact with fiction, and passionate indictment of the cult of personality, I also found the novel both unique and exciting.

It is difficult to relate this book to any other I’ve read. It smacks to a certain degree of the quasi-journalistic prose of Truman Capote in In Cold Blood, but possesses a more liberal engagement with historical facts similar to the approach taken in Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, who begins his novel by noting that although his characters are fake, the circumstances in which they are situated were more-or-less real. Also, like Koestler (and to a lesser degree Orwell and Solzhenitsyn), Vargas Llosa seems more concerned about the machinery of government than its ideological orientation. The reader very clearly understands that it is not so much the regime’s policies (in this case, a degenerate form of capitalism) as it is its methods. And, indeed, the methods were horrible.

“The Goat” of the novel’s title is the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, who led the small Latin American country out of financial ruin in the 1930s and 1940s, but who did so through ruthlessly suppressing opposition, massacring poverty-stricken Haitians, and bribing American diplomats. The book mostly covers the events of the early 1960s when Trujillo’s erratic behavior had alienated his international allies and provoked economic sanctions that threatened to destroy the country financially. Vargas Llosa opens the novel at a time when the Trujillo regime was poised at the edge of collapse: its longtime friend, the United States, could no longer tolerate the regime’s disgraceful human rights violations and Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, had launched a small (unsuccessful, but troubling) land invasion of the Dominican coast. The Catholic Church had begun to publicly speak out against the regime’s practices of torture and midnight executions, and Trujillo’s botched assassination attempt of Rómulo Betancourt, the president of Venezuela, had uniformly angered the Latin American world.

The stakes are high and by the end of the novel, they get higher. What Vargas Llosa charts out is the transformation of a dictatorship into a quasi-democracy – a process that’s riddled with murder, political infighting, and palace intrigue. Along the way, much will be demanded of the reader as well. The book is complex both in structure and narration, fraught with cliffhangers and the purposeful withholding of details, and seethes with a level of violence that is sickening in its detail and depravity. We are not at all comforted by the fact that most of it, perhaps all of it, was real.

Vargas Llosa gives us a story with many faces. On one front, we have the narrative of Urania Cabral (a fictional figure who serves as a foil to the many real ones portrayed in the novel). Urania is the daughter of one of Trujillo’s advisors and was a girl of 14 during the year Trujillo’s regime collapsed. This side of the story is told using present tense verbs (which is unsettling, if you’re not used to that sort of thing) and is set in the capital city of the Dominican Republic, which she is visiting for the first time in nearly 30 years. The chapters told from her perspective gradually shed light on her personal memories of the regime’s horrors and also explain her self-enforced exile from the country after the regime fell. On a second front, we have several chapters that are devoted purely to the activities of Trujillo over the span of one day. We follow his actions and his thoughts as the dictator awakes in the early morning and we will follow him into the late evening when he is unexpectedly gunned down on the side of a highway. On the final front, we have the story of Trujillo’s four assassins (who were all real people). This third “type” of chapter first meets the assassins as they wait endlessly in a car late at night — the night of the same day that Trujillo’s narrative begins — and follows them through the assassination itself as well as the events that play out afterward.

The book is a bit of a high wire act. At first, Vargas Llosa alternates nicely among the three perspectives. Chapters 1, 4, 7, etc. are devoted to Urania, chapters 2, 5, 8, etc. to Trujillo and so on. But once Trujillo is murdered, his chapters and those of the assassins bleed together into the same narrative and, for a space of at least 100 pages, we forget about Urania altogether. Additionally, although the main actions of the novel are confined to the 24-hour period leading up to the assassination, long story arcs fill in the backgrounds of each character. These past stories are often told as flashbacks that are seamlessly integrated into the present, sometimes with the same character answering two different questions in his own head: one to the person he’s currently addressing in the present and another to a person he remembers from his past. It is the sort of thing seen frequently in movies, but attempted rarely in books; if the writing is not incredibly precise, the author risks losing readers altogether.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the novel is that, despite the previous paragraphs, I have really given away very little about its content. There are countless other well-developed characters in the book (so many that, admittedly, it gets confusing as times) and countless other sentences, paragraphs, and even pages that are so artfully rendered that I sometimes found myself shaking my head in awe. What simmers under the cover for the first 250 pages literally explodes into relentless (and unexpected) chaos in the last 150 and the novel’s closing pages are harrowing and haunting, but hopeful. I cannot recommend the book for the faint of heart, but if you trudged through Blood Meridian and were able to appreciate its mastery of form, then expect to enjoy this novel as well.

Rating: 8 / 10

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