“Fall of the Patriarch”
A review of:

The Feast of the Goat

Mario Vargas Llosa.
(Translated by Edith Grossman)
FSG, 2001.
ISBN 0-374-15476-7; 404 Pages, Hardcover $25.00
ISBN 0312420277; 416 Pages, Paperback $14.00

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 Trujillos 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 Márquezs 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 novels 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, its 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.

--David Klopfenstein
26 March 2003

Additional Information

Books and Writers "Vargas Llosa" page -- Contains a biographical sketch and a bibliograpy.

Repertorio Español -- A NYC theater company that has adapted La fiesta del chivo for the stage.


Email David Klopfenstein at: daveklop@earthlink.net

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