Anatomy of a tyrant
THE FEAST OF THE GOAT by Mario Vargas Llosa
Faber, f16.99, pp. 404, ISBN 0571207715
This ugly, mesmerising, masterly novel is as steeped in facts as Macbeth was in blood. Nothing could be further from the popular idea of the South American novel, and nothing could be a more remarkable demonstration of its strengths, obsessions and direction. It is the story of a terrible crisis in a small country's history, and, telling that terrible story, has no time to beguile foreign readers with exotica; this is not one of those South American narratives about sitting in the sun, minding the flower stall, stuffed with characters who grow wings and mate with tigers (you know the sort of thing). It is about oil, money, international relations and corruption; it has an appalling, irresistible reality.
The central episode of the novel is the assassination of Trujillo, the leader of the Dominican Republic, in 1961. Trujillo had led the country since 1930, and was a castiron Latin American dictator of the worst dye. Like many such men, his rule was propped up by the support of the United States. President Roosevelt once stated, 'Trujillo is an SOB, but at least he's our SOB.' By his last years, that support had been ebbing away, and it was only the prospect of the country going the way of Cuba which kept him in place. Kennedy openly said that the fear of a new Castro arising there was the only thing worse than Trujillo's regime, and until the Americans could be certain of a democratic administration taking his place, they would continue to support him. (You may interpret this ambition as cynically as you choose.) The citizens, in the event, took matters into their own hands, and Trujillo was killed in 1961. As it happened, years of uncertainty followed, and political instability; but things did not quite follow any of the paths which had been predicted, and no one, surely, has ever seriously regretted Trujillo's death. He was a bad man.
Mario Vargas Llosa is a man who knows all about power and its temptations, and, although he is Peruvian, has written a brilliant, crowded and deeply thoughtful novel about the specific course of the history of the Dominican Republic. It is divided between an astonishingly persuasive account of Trujillo's last days, expressed with an intimacy and sympathy which are constantly suppressing rage, the motives of his killers, and a stranger, more familial story. Urania Cabral, years later, is returning to the Dominican Republic to nurse the last illness of her father, one of Trujillo's inner circle. Urania has been gone for 35 years, and is now a smart New York administrator. Her story is marginal to Trujillo's, but slowly comes to seem its whole point. If Urania's story, seismically moving as it is, is the ordinary accomplishment of a very skilful novelist, the story of Trujillo and the psychic anxieties which shape and direct his last years are the work of a true and profound visionary. Trujillo, as he first appears, is a man almost tormented by two things; the first is the ambitions of his neighbours, and his thoughts are filled with Venezuelan oil, Castro's revolution, and the faithless Americans. That is what politicians are supposed to think about, but Llosa adds a second, odder torment to his meditations. Trujillo is seen as dwelling endlessly on the rebellion of art, and spends great amounts of energy bringing it under his control. Poetry is recited in the streets, and floats upwards to his revolted ears; a writer has been required to draft the publications of the 'Bountiful First Lady', Maria Martinez, before her books are imposed on every citizen —
wasn't Moral Meditations, with a prologue by the Mexican Jose Vasconcelos, required reading in the schools, and wasn't it reprinted every two months? Hadn't False Antily been the greatest stage hit in the 31 years of the Trujillo era?
His sons embarrass him by their ridiculous names out of Verdi's Alda, and if he has ever read a novel, he has deliberately forgotten it, with the exception of Quo Vadis?, and that is really about how to be a successful dictator. Trujillo hates and fears art; and here is a novelist writing a novel about him.
In a sense, the chief subject here is that very Latin subject, the intimate relations between sex and power. Violence, the exercise of power and sexual nature are connected here in a way which does not seem inevitable.
It had never occurred to him that a woman could dedicate herself to things as manly as planning a revolution, obtaining and hiding weapons, dynamite. Molotov cocktails, knives, bayonets, talking about assassination attempts, strategy and tactics, and dispassionately discussing whether, in the event they fell into the hands of the SIM [secret service], activists ought to swallow poison to avoid the risk of betraying their comrades under torture.
The Freudian overtones here hardly need elucidation, but what is interesting is that the Urania subplot, which mostly consists of nothing more than a middle-aged woman nursing her sick father, readily assumes the air of an ingenious and wellplanned revenge. The men in the novel devote themselves to weaponry, and their power all seems erected for the purpose of seducing women, like Trujillo's appalling rapist son.
It is all about sex, and the assertion of masculinity; Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican playboy whose penis was of such legendarily prodigious dimensions that Italian waiters still refer to the largest of their pepper-grinders as the Rub irosa, plays rather a crucial symbolic role in the plot. Against that, the women wage an effective and successful counter-attack — effective within the terms of the novel, that is. Against the increasingly horrifying tales of the emphatic and exaggerated masculinity of Trujillo and his terrifying sons, the society of women and feminine values starts to seem like a more permanent and abiding humanity, which will be there long after the posturing of Trujillo and his kind has passed away into nightmare. Trujillo hardly seems human; it is part of his mythology and his self-belief that he is a man who 'did not sweat, did not sleep, never had a wrinkle on his uniform, his tuxedo, or his street clothes'. The women sleep, nurse, engage in acts of small friendship, and their intimate humanity starts to seem like a direct challenge to the pretensions of dictators.
It is a splendid novel, imbued with a passionately driving commitment. South America has, in the last half-century, produced a remarkable number of great novelists, who have often been misread in Europe. Even a novelist like Gabriel Garcia Marquez is much more directly engaged in questions of politics than is generally supposed; 100 Years of Solitude is not the fairy tale that many of his European readers thought it. In many ways, the turmoil of the times has meant that politics has a knack of forcing its way into everything; it often seems as if there is no other subject for the South American novelist to address. When a novelist as gifted, intelligent and
perceptive as Mario Vargas Llosa takes on the subject of tyranny and the fantasies of tyrants, the results are spectacular and incontrovertibly plausible. There is nobody comparable in the Englishlanguage novel, and no novelist who could conceivably produce so detailed and so convincing a portrait of a dictator as the one contained in The Year of the Goat. The Nobel Prize, surely, cannot be long coming.
Philip Hensher's latest novel, The Mulberry Empire, is reviewed by Justin Maroth on page 43.