THE FEAST OF THE GOAT
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 404 pages
REVIEWED BY ALEJANDRA BRONFMAN
One approaches Mario Vargas Llosa’s new novel, “The Feast of the Goat,” with some trepidation. Whose side will he be on? Will we be able to discern his politics from the narrative if we wish, or ignore it if we choose? Mr. Vargas Llosa follows the propensity of many recent Latin American authors to make no secret of their vision of the novel as political discourse. Fiction writing is, and should be, according to these writers, an integrated aspect of one’s political project, to be made explicit rather than remain hidden.
There’s no need for Mr. Vargas Llosa to hide anything: He has enjoyed a long career as a writer and a visible one as politician in his native country of Peru, and is among the most respected living writers today. His political views, much like other writers who began in the mid-1950s, shifted radically over the course of time. Mr. Vargas Llosa began as a Marxist and has ended up a supporter of neo-liberal economic policy which has, because of the exacerbation of inequality it has spurred, become the bane of leftists everywhere. More often than not, looking for a political stance in his writing yields complex rather than obvious answers.
The book, which is set in the bloody and repressive Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic (1928-1961), poses the interesting question of how a writer of Mr. Vargas Llosa’s stripe deals with a brutal right-wing dictatorship. But to conclude that he merely proposes to defend it would be far too simplistic. The book is indeed a meditation on politics, and in its use of Rafael Trujillo’s voice as one of the main characters, an attempt to humanize a dictator widely deemed inhuman.
But this is only the beginning, and the novel takes so many turns that in the end we are not left standing definitively on one side or another. Instead we stagger from monstrosity to tenderness to greed to humiliation to great sacrifice to banal vengeance. Ultimately, the novel’s deep structure buttresses a system that belongs neither to the right or the left: More than anything else, it is a defense of patriarchal authority.
The novel’s tight organization introduces three sets of characters, starts them out in three different times and places, and ends as they converge on one moment that proves transformative for everyone involved. One narrative thread follows Urania Cabral, a successful New York lawyer, who returns to Santo Domingo after 35 years of self-imposed exile determined to confront her ghosts and demons, which include her father, a former official of the Trujillo regime.
Another set of characters are the conspirators. Antonio de la Maza, Tony, Estrella, Sadhal, and Amadito, all at one time or another loyal minions, have gradually turned against a regime which has worn them down with its hypocrisy, corruption and cruelty. As they plan Trujillo’s assassination they come to realize how much they depend on that which they have lost: trust for one another. Finally there is the goat himself, Trujillo in his daily routine. Mr. Vargas Llosa offers a fascinating portrait of a man obsessed with order and cleanliness, brilliantly manipulative of all those who answer to him, and despairing of his aging body, one of the few things over which he has no control.
The connections between the three narrative threads supersede those of space and time, resting instead on feelings, states of mind. The novel is at its heart an exploration of humiliation and of memory, and of their roles as overwhelming emotions that need to be confronted, expunged or avenged. Memory is everywhere in this book, revealing to readers the unwritten history of Trujillo’s regime.
From the first moment of her arrival in the Dominican Republic Urania is engulfed in memories of her childhood as a bright, well-adjusted member of the cultural and political elite. But even as she embraces many of these memories she struggles mightily against the one secret she has carried around for 35 years, the formative moment of such great shame that it led her to reject her life and family in the Dominican Republic and flee to the United States. This duel between remembering and forgetting is manifest when Urania finds herself walking, out of habit, to her old house in which her father still lives, a place she had resolved to avoid.
It is precisely the memories of humiliation that eat away at all three sets of characters as they converge on one another in a murderous cluster. For the conspirators, money and status have come to mean little in the face of repeated moments of shaming. Each of the pursuers carries a story of abjection. For Amadito, it was being forced not only to renege on an engagement but to also to shoot the brother of his former fianc. Though he attempted to bury these memories they refused to be erased and eventually drove him to the conviction that his only choice was to kill the one who forced him to kill a friend.
But just as humiliation can stoke the fires of action, it can as easily paralyze and debilitate. Here is Mr. Vargas Llosa as complex and opaque rather than transparently “political.” For even Trujillo carries shame and fears humiliation, coming to hate it as he helplessly watches the erosion of his power. He can command entire armies or irritate the mighty United States, but he cannot prevent his own son from appearing drunk and incoherent for a military parade over which he was to preside. He cannot prevent his own wife from mistrusting the continuation of his regime and ferreting money to overseas accounts against his explicit prohibitions.
He can do nothing about the physical incursions of old age, and must therefore exist in an eternal panic about an uncontrollable stain spreading from his crotch down his legs. And the memory of one disastrous night in the arms of a young woman becomes more than he can bear. Mr.Vargas Llosa therefore exposes a sensitive nerve a seemingly ruthless dictator, killer and politician, has weaknesses that render him human. This is supposed to be, and indeed is, one of the tricks of the novel. If we don’t like Trujillo, we can certainly see him as someone who struggles, with problems we all fear.
Yet at the same time, all of these weaknesses indicate the breaking down of masculine, patriarchal authority. Mr. Vargas Llosa is suggesting that the loss of this kind of authority is the worst of all, the one failure that even the powerful cannot remedy. This is the second twist even as he softens the image of the dictator, he seeks to defend patriarchal societal structures, somehow oblivious to their role as one of the most persistent and oppressive modes of organizing society.
In the end, the critique of one dictator’s regime is nuanced, complex, and ambiguous. On the other hand, there is no critique of patriarchal structures. They are, Mr. Vargas Llosa implies, the only value worth defending. If his views on political authority bear the marks of dynamic, evolving conceptualizations, his views on gender relationships have apparently moved at a glacial pace.
Alejandra Bronfman is assistant professor of history at the University of Florida.