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Mario Vargas Llosa: La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat)
After the disappointment of Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto), it was a welcome relief to read this novel, in which Vargas Llosa fully returns to form. The topic is a favourite of Latin American writers, namely that of a totalitarian dictator. In this case, his subject is a real dictator, Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 till his assassination in 1961. Much of the novel is divided into three separate stories told concurrently. The first, set in the present, concerns Urania Cabral, a Dominican woman who had left the country, when aged fourteen, thirty-five years previously, shortly before Trujillo’s assassination. The second follows the assassins from just before the assassination till their various deaths (for all but two) soon afterwards. The third gives us a glimpse of Trujillo himself in the last few days of his life.
Urania Cabral is a fictitious character, though many of the other characters are real. Her father is Agustín Cabral, a senior figure in the Trujillo regime, who suddenly finds himself out of favour with Trujillo, shortly before the assassination. He never learns why he is out of favour and, while we get an idea of the reason, it seems that one of the key reasons is that Trujillo liked both to test and torment his subordinates. Urania left the Dominican Republic in 1961 to go to school on a scholarship in Michigan. She has never returned to the country till now and, indeed, has not been in touch with her relatives (including her father) since then. We only learn the reason for this in the last few pages of the book. It is not entirely clear why she has returned, except that she has recently become much more interested in the history of her country and she wants to see it again. Her father is dying of cancer and, initially, she does not intend to visit him in hospital but, finally, does so, though he is too ill to talk.
We join the second story as the assassins are waiting for Trujillo’s car. He is very late – we learn the reasons later (there are more than one) – and they are concerned that he is not going to show up. All of them are supporters and benefactors of the regime, who, for various reasons, have turned against Trujillo and accept that he has to be killed. While they are waiting we learn their different reasons for wanting him dead. They make a mess of the assassination but do manage to kill him but the coup d’état which was meant to accompany the assassination never happens and the participants are either killed trying to flee, captured and brutally tortured before being executed or, in the case of two of them, able to hide out, one in the Italian ambassador’s house and the other in the Minister of Health’s house.
The most interesting part, of course, is the Trujillo section as Vargas Llosa gives us a complex portrait of a man who is convinced that he is acting, selflessly, for the good of the country. For example, he justifies the fact that most corporations are owned by him or his family because that encourages the workers to work harder than if the corporation was owned by others or by the public sector. At the time of his death, the country is subject to OAS sanctions because Trujillo’s men tried to kill Venezuelan president, Rómulo Betancourt, though the attempt failed. The OAS sanctions are supported by the United States, not for any humanitarian reasons but because they fear Trujillo’s excesses may lead to a Castro-like revolution. Trujillo’s fight with the Church has also turned the United States against him. As well as his political problems, we also see his personal problems. These include his prostate problem, which leads to incontinence and erectile dysfunction, both of which figure in this novel, his concern about the playboy lifestyle of his sons, his lust for women, particularly under-age women, and, of course, his paranoia. Above all, he feels himself to be the incarnation of the country and that it owes everything to him.
It has been suggested that this is the best novel of the 20th century. While that clearly is a massive exaggeration – it is not even Vargas Llosa’s best novel – it certainly shows a clear return to form and is a first-rate novel about a vicious dictator and what goes on in such dictatorships.
First published in 2000 by Alfaguara
First published in English in 2001 by Farrar Straus Giroux
Translated by Edith Grossman