By Mario Vargas Llosa
Reviewed by Alan Green
Sadly lots of countries in Latin America have spent some time languishing under tyrants. Even against that bloody background Rafael “The Goat” Trujilo stands out as a particularly monstrous figure. In 1930 Trujilo managed to seize control of the government of The Dominican Republic. The next thirty one years were marked by unspeakable brutality. “The Feast of the Goat” is about the horror of that period and the fateful night in 1961 when some Dominicans finally screwed up the courage to rid their country of “The Goat” once and for all.
The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa is widely regarded as one of the giants of Latin American literature. The “dictator novel” is rapidly becoming a genre in its own right in his part of the world. It was probably inevitable that he would decide to write one and we should be thankful he did because he has produced a powerful and disturbing book. He once said that a great work of fiction should make people uneasy. If that was his goal when he was writing The Feast… then he has certainly succeeded.
“The Feast of The Goat” has three narrative threads. One is centered on Trujilo himself. Vargas Llosa bravely takes us inside Trujilo’s head and tries to show us the dictatorship through the dictator’s eyes. We experience his last day alive and various other key moments. “The Generalissimo”, “The Father and Benefactor of the New Nation” emerges as basically a petty thug with a distorted sense of his own grandeur. Having said that he also seems to have a charisma that enchants and enslaves people. His gaze reduces strong men to quivering obedience.
Trujilo brutally tortured and murdered his opponents. One of his favorite methods of finishing them off or of disposing of their bodies was to feed them to the sharks. In The Feast his greatest atrocity is referred to almost in passing. In 1937 he ordered a massacre of Haitian immigrants. 20 000 people died.
Mario Vargas Llosa seems to think that Trujilo was at least partly motivated by a sense of machismo. In The Feast Trujilo certainly sees himself as a macho figure. His main hobby is sleeping with his generals’ wives and then publicly boasting about it to humiliate them. On his last day he knows that the US and the Church have turned against him but it’s his creeping sexual impotence that is really worrying him. Poetic justice is a wonderful thing. I’m afraid I don’t know if that detail is historically accurate.
The second thread is about the assassins. The suspense is skillfully built up as they stand by the dark highway, nervously clinging to their guns and waiting for the tyrant to drive past. As they wait each one in turn has a flashback to the events that led them to that moment. The interesting point is that almost all of them have been morally compromised by the regime. Each one of them has collaborated with the regime to some extent at one time or another. Trujilo’s stranglehold on society was so total that nobody could escape being sucked into his corruption, being used and tainted by him. A catalogue of humiliations and murders explains each man’s presence on that highway.
After the assassination we see them struggling to survive the bloody chaos that they unleash. Although the assassination is a success the revolution doesn’t quite go to plan. Ironically the most gruesome acts of torture in the book take place after Trujilo’s death.
The two central story lines are framed by a more personal story line. Thirty years after the fall of Trujilo a Dominican woman called Urania Carabel returns home for the first time in decades. Just over thirty years ago she experienced something so terrible that it scarred her for life. She moved to the US and cut off all contact with her family. She returns to see her senile dying father one last time. He had been a senior member of Trujilo’s government before he suddenly fell out of favour. His desperate desire to regain “The Goat’s” confidence became so all-consuming that he was prepared to sacrifice his daughter.
Urania’s story is obviously meant to be a moving symbol of the corruption that dictatorship breeds and the suffering it causes. Unfortunately it loses something because we know that it is less grounded in history than the other two threads. Urania seems a bit two-dimensional. Her character is simply a damaged woman with a terrible secret. A secret that you’ve probably guessed already and you haven’t read a single page of the book. This narrative thread seems a bit tacked on but it works reasonably well if it is taken on it’s own terms. It doesn’t ruin the book.
“The Feast of the Goat” is a moving historical novel and a dramatic political thriller. It’s a disturbing tale of tyranny, murder, torture and revolution. Mario Vargas Llosa manages to evoke the stifling claustrophobic atmosphere of life in a society that has become a prison and a battlefield. “The Feast of the Goat” is a powerful exploration of the disease of dictatorship.