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“She has always been fascinated by the strange directions memory takes…”: Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat

On a morning in 1961, Rafael Trujillo begins his preparations for another day as absolute dictator of the Dominican Republic. On an evening in 1961, four men wait in a parked car by the side of a road to assassinate the absolute dictator of the Dominican Republic. On a day in 1995, a woman returns home to Santo Domingo after thirty-four years abroad to speak to her incapacitated father, deprived of all his motor functions by a cerebral hemorrhage. So begins Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a reconstruction of the last day in the life of Rafael Trujillo, soon segueing into a meditation about power and its slow, inevitable corruption and destruction of the human spirit.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize citation speaks of his “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” The Feast of the Goat is perhaps that novel which most accurately exemplifies this terse tribute. The three intersecting plot-lines, separated by three-and-a-half decades, which start apart, merge, coalesce, and come apart again, are ultimately bound together by a detailed exploration of the structures of power and their interactions with individuals. Trujillo’s last day demonstrates his messianic control over the country’s military, politics and secret police. Meanwhile, his would-be assassins reflect upon their own personal transformations from Trujillo’s most ardent devotees to his most implacable enemies. And in a one-sided conversation with her comatose father (followed by an interrogation with her family), who was once one of Trujillo’s closest associates until his inexplicable fall from grace, Urania Cabral recalls the events from thirty-five years ago that permanently estranged father and daughter.

As in any novel about a repressive, absolutist dictatorship, The Feast of the Goat has its secret police, its executions and its tortures, its rituals of denunciation, confession, repentance and liquidation, and its stark depiction of suffocating, uncertain life under the regime. At various points, one is reminded of Animal FarmDarkness at Noon, The General in his Labyrinth, and other powerful novels on the same theme. Indeed, The Feast of the Goat is located firmly within the tradition of the Latin American “dictator novel“, a form of writing that has emerged out of the long endurance of military dictatorships in the region. For me, the unique brilliance of The Feast of the Goat lies in its exploration of how the dictatorship, over time, creates a dull compulsion that normalises even the most brutal and shocking of events. As the book moves towards its climax, bit by bit, the event that caused the estrangement between Urania and her father begins to emerge, as though hidden behind a slowly-dissipating mist. The event itself is extremely disturbing, but what is even more disturbing is the terrifying inevitability about it. In the elder Cabral, we see, close-up, the impact of the dictatorship upon the mental and moral faculties of a single individual, up to a point at which there is a sense that his actions are no longer his own, but are willed by the iron logic of the dictatorship (which itself is more than simply the personality of Rafael Trujillo).

This is also a theme that has been explored elsewhere, in books such as A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (and also Darkness at Noon), where ultimately, what is most frightening about the relationship between power and the individual is not the crushing of his resistance, but the deprivation of his ability to take moral choices and actions. This is what differentiates it from a book like 1984, where Winston Smith’s resistance is broken down by a very systematic set of human actions.  In Llosa’s novel, there is also a system, but it is cold and impersonal, obeying a logic that seems impossible to stand against, because it isn’t a human creation in the first place.

The Feast of the Goat weaves the personal and the political together with great skill. Each of the characters – from Urania to Dr Cabral, from the Dictator to his chief of Secret Police and his pupper President to each of the assassins – stand out as distinctly individual and unique. And it is through their stories that Llosa captures the sweep of history – from the initial rise to power of Trujillo, his CIA-supported rule, and his ultimate fall. Like much of Latin American writing of this type, the narrative structure is loose and disorganised, there are constant shifts of voice and point of view (I was reminded if Pedro Paramo at various points, and Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz), and above all else – as in much of Marquez – there is a sense of historical urgency, the urgency of a committed writer who – to quote Marquez – must tell his story before the historians have time to arrive.

Lastly, in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and in The War at the End of the World, I found Llosa’s writing to be wonderfully atmospheric – and he has lost none of his skill in The Feast of the Goat. The darkness of the book is punctuated by some brilliantly sensual descriptions of Santo Domingo (often reminding me of Delhi!), which makes the city come alive to the eyes, the ears, and the nose. Here is an example:

On the ground floor of the Jaragua, she is assaulted by the noise, that atmosphere, familiar by now, of voices, motors, radios blaring at full volume, merengues, salsas, danzones, boleros, rock, rap, all jumbled together, assailing one another and assailing her with their shrill clamour. Animated chaos, the profound need in what was once your people, Urania, to stupefy themselves into not thinking and, perhaps, not even feeling. An explosion of savage life, immune to the tide of modernisation. Something in Dominicans clings to this pre-rational, magical form: this appetite for noise.” 

Among the dictator novels, the Feast of the Goat is perhaps the one reconstructed most painstakingly from actual historical events. With the exception of Cabral, his daughter and their family, the fictional protagonists (if they can be called so), the action takes place upon the historical stage. Sometimes, while reading, one gets a strange sensation of having had a window opened into the interior landscape of famous (or notorious) historical figures, and it is testament to Llosa’s skill that fiction and history blend seamlessly throughout the novel, and that there is never a note of dissonance.

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Filed under Latin American Fiction, Mario Vargas Llosa

“He was a creature given to short-lived, contradictory, but invariably sincere enthusiasms”: Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

I’ve always had an ambiguous relationship with Llosa. Books have been started, but for a variety of reasons, remain unfinished. The War at the End of the World was left behind on the back-seat of an auto rickshaw, 120 pages in; The Dream of the Celt was interrupted by a change of continents, and the consequent loss of Blackwell’s Bookshop, which allowed you to take books to their cafe and read them cover to cover. This time, I took up Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and – thank heavens! – managed to finish it. Actually, it is a hard book not to finish. Unlike Llosa’s other writing, which is characterised by dense prose, indubitably complex, multi-faceted plot-lines, and a proliferating cast of characters, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a racy comic novel, an unabashed farce with, of course, a very distinctive Latin American flavour.

Aunt Julia, set in Lima during the mid-20th century, is a thinly-disguised autobiographical story about 18-year old Vargas, part-time news-editor for Radio Pana-mericana and part-time Law Student, who falls uproariously for his 32-year old, divorced Aunt Julia (an aunt, but not a blood-relative). At around the same time Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian script-writer and actor, with an implacable hatred for Argentines, arrives to take over the production of radio plays for the organisation. As their courtship progresses, from hand-holding and long walks to an improbable bid for marriage, via fights and reconciliations, stiff filial opposition (including a gun-toting father) and much help from friends, Pedro Camacho’s radio plays grow zanier and zanier, with characters appearing and re-appearing, dying and being resurrected, until a final genocidal climax, which also coincides with the climax of the courtship.

Apart from its memorable characters (including the sidekicks, who often steal the show) and delectable twists and turns, Aunt Julia contains some hilarious (and hilariously sharp) reflections about the writing life. Pedro Camacho, an unabashed caricature of the classic literary genius immersed in his work, dresses up as his characters while he writes, so that he can get into the feel of things. Vargas himself is an agonised writer-in-waiting, who dreams about living in a garret in Paris, and wants to write a story called The Qualitative Leap, which – in a quite brilliant one-line portrayal of the anxiety of influence – will be “as coldly objective, intellectual, terse, and ironic as one of Borges’s – an author whom I had just discovered at that time.” When he first meets Aunt Julia, and is attempting to impress her without even knowing it, he explains to her, in classically endearing 18-year old fashion, that:

“… love didn’t exist, that it was the invention of an Italian named Petrarch and the Provencal troubadours. That what people thought was a crystal-clear outpouring of emotion, a pure effusion of sentiment, was merely the instinctive desire of cats in heat hidden beneath the poetic words and myths of literature.”

… before immediately conceding to his audience that he doesn’t believe a word of it. Vargas, as a character, is splendid: cocky without being cocksure, headstrong, but not annoyingly so; self-conscious but not to a fault; reflective, but never consumed by his own interior world. It is difficult not to see at least parts of one’s own 18-year old self in him, and almost impossible to refrain from caring very intensely about his fate, which for most of the novel, seems as precariously balanced as a pig upon a beanstalk.

Aunt Julia is a book of multiple narratives. The main story – the courtship of Vargas and Julia – is punctuated, after every chapter, by a Pedro Camacho radio play, recounted in third-person, like a story. Being reductive, one can say that the book is composed of one novella, broken up by many short stories, none of whom bear any tangible resemblance to each other. For a long time, I attempted – unsuccessfully – to work out the relationship between the main storyline and each of the radio plays (potboilers filled with incest, murder, insanity, betrayal and everything else  that Baudelaire would maintain ought to splash the canvas of our lives with their colours). This review quotes Llosa as saying that one of his intentions was “to prove that his own early world and the world of soap opera were not so very different from each other”, and goes on to compare the main storyline (set in the real world) with the plots of a soap opera, especially in its explosive climax.

There is, admittedly, some truth in that; and there are a couple of places in the novel where Llosa deliberately blurs the line between “real-life” and a Camacho soap opera. But I feel that that is not entirely convincing. The Pedro Camacho soaps have just that extra layer of exaggeration, that hint of the grotesque and the weird, that places them in the realm of fiction. The story of the deranged rat-killer who may or may not be eaten by rats at the end, the story of the good-for-nothing lad who becomes the greatest football referee in Latin America, and so on – for such stories, at the end of the day, it is difficult to entirely suspend disbelief, while the Vargas-Julia episodes suffer from no such infirmity: they are entirely, viscerally believable. Of course, real life and soap operas hardly mirror each other – and Llosa himself said he wanted to prove they were “not so very different”.

Ultimately, though, I was left with the feeling that perhaps it is best not to look for connections. Perhaps Aunt Julia simply shows us that the novel and the short story can exist together in a book, that can be enjoyed as  a book with multiple, unconnected narratives, and nothing more.

 

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Filed under Latin American Fiction, Mario Vargas Llosa

Inter-textuality: Nasser and Marquez

One of the things I enjoy most, as a reader, is to spot how writers, separated in time, space, culture, and language – nonetheless often end up using very similar words and expressions to convey similar sentiments. The most spectacular form that this takes is using an identical image, but often, even non-imagery based similarities are quite striking. Recently, I read Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain, (a part of) Mario Vargas Llosa’s’ The Dream of the Celt and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, and was, indeed, struck by the similarities between the Jordanian and the two Latin Americans.

Reflecting on nostalgia, Nasser writes:

Nostalgia amplifies things. The memory preserves tastes and smells and images that are of its own making, or that are not as they were in reality.”

And:

Or does the extraordinary power of nostalgia exaggerate what was minor and erase the marginal, the peripheral, the accompanying symptoms, while preserving the stable essence, an elixir that might be of nostalgia’s own making, impervious to the ravages of time?”

And in Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez writes:

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

The similarities between these turns of phrase, and some of the best passages from Proust in Swann’s Way would also present an interesting study.

As I mentioned in my review, a large part of Land of No Rain is about split identities within the same person, to the point where the two narrative selves of the same narrator enter into conversation and argumentation with each other. Unfortunately, I did not take down a representative quote, but was intrigued when, at the beginning of The Dream of the Celt (which, just like Land of No Rain, is about revolution), Llosa quotes Jose Enrique Rodo:

Each one of us is not one, but many. And these successive personalities that emerge one from the other tend to present the strangest, most astonishing contrasts among themselves.

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Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory