Thursday, 6 June 2013

'The Feast of the Goat' by Mario Vargas Llosa (Review)

I'm not a big believer in coincidences, but sometimes it's hard not to believe that the universe is trying to tell you something. On the same day I was to start my latest venture into Spanish-language literature, several sources reported that the book had been voted best Spanish novel of this century so far. I was a little confused by the news, as I was fairly certain that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa was actually Peruvian...  As it turns out, he has Spanish citizenship, so he's eligible to be on that list - but does the book deserve it?  Let's find out...

The Feast of the Goat (translated by Edith Grossman) is a political thriller set in the Dominican Republic, one which looks at the end of the country's Trujillo dictatorship in May 1961.  The novel starts decades after though, when Urania Cabral, a New York lawyer (and the daughter of a Trujillo supporter), returns to Santo Domingo after thirty-five years of self-imposed exile.  She visits her father, paralysed by a stroke, and has dinner with relatives - but none of this is her real reason for returning to her home country after decades away.

Meanwhile, back in 1961, the seventy-year-old dictator is getting ready for the day, unaware that, in a third strand of the story, a small group of men is getting ready to put an end to both the regime and his life.  Over 400 pages, and three discrete strands, the reader will find out exactly what happened on the fateful day, and what the consequences were for the country.  We might also find out what made Urania stay in the US for so long...

The Feast of the Goat, despite its multiple strands, is a fairly straight-forward piece of historical fiction, with Trujillo, the great dictator, at the heart of the story.  Despite his age, he is still a formidable figure; however, sanctions and pressure from without (America) and within (the Catholic church) means that he has to be on his guard.  Initially, he comes across as a stereotypical sociopathic despot, one who has a whole country cowering. The more we learn though, the more subtle his depiction becomes.  While we could never condone his behaviour, Vargas Llosa helps us to understand what makes him tick.

The same can't be said for his family.  His two sons are blood-thirsty playboys, swanning around the world playing polo and sleeping with any woman they deem desirable enough, and his wife cares only for money (and revenge for any perceived slights).  The writer is careful to provide us with details of the excesses the ruling family allow themselves:
"The crowning events of the commemoration were the promotion of Ramfis to the rank of lieutenant general, for outstanding service to the nation, and the enthroning of Her Gracious Majesty Angelita I, Queen of the Fair, who arrived by boat, announced by all the sirens in the navy and all the bells in all the churches of the capital, wearing her crown of precious jewels and her delicate gown of tulle and lace created in Rome by the Fontana sisters, two celebrated modistes who used forty-five meters of Russian ermine to create the costume with a train three meters long and a robe that copied the one worn by Elizabeth II of England at her coronation."
p.98 (Faber and Faber, 2002)
It's little wonder that the Trujillos have enemies.  When you enjoy yourselves at the country's expense, you're always likely to be heading for a fall.

That fall is closer than the dictator realises.  A mixed bag of conspirators (some activists, some former supporters - one is even Trujillo's bodyguard) have decided that the time has come to redeem themselves and sanitise the land.  In the words of Antonio Imbert, one of the conspirators:
"It had been this malaise of so many years' duration - thinking one thing and doing something that contradicted it every day - that led him, in the secret recesses of his mind, to condemn Trujillo to death, to convince himself that as long as Trujillo lived, he and many other Dominicans would be condemned to this awful queasy sickness of constantly having to lie to themselves and deceive everyone else, of having to be two people in one, a public lie and a private truth that could not be expressed." (p.141)
The group hopes to take out Trujillo surgically and usher in a new era of peace in the Dominican Republic.  Sadly though, operations are rarely as clean and surgical as one would like...

While it's fairly easy for the reader to understand why Trujillo needs to be assassinated, the question of his popularity is not quite so clear.  The writer gradually helps the reader catch up with the region's history, detailing the occupation by Haiti, the push for independence and Trujillo's defiance of invasions and sanctions alike.  There's also the small matter of the Generalissimo's persona, as described by one of Trujillo's military commanders:
"He never allowed anyone to treat him with disrespect.  But, like so many officers, so many Domincans, before Trujillo his valor and sense of honor disappeared, and he was overcome by a paralysis of his reason and his muscles, by servile obedience and reverence.  He often had asked himself why the mere presence of the Chief - his high-pitched voice and the fixity of his gaze - annihilated him morally." (p.309)
We are witness to several examples of the effect the dictator's aura has on those around him - and with complete control of newspapers and radio stations, he has ample opportunity to show it to the rest of the nation as well.

Urania's story, of course, takes place long after the events of 1961, but her experience is somehow tied in with both of the other strands of the story.  What made her leave the Dominican Republic?  Did it have anything to do with her father's dismissal?  What is her connection with Trujillo?  While the answers to these questions are not really key to the main story, they do keep you guessing right to the end.

Overall, The Feast of the Goat is an interesting book, one which people fond of historical fiction will like.  However, I had several issues with it, and I can't say that it lived up to the rest of my recent reading.  The prose was fairly pedestrian, with none of the sparkle of Saramago, the languid skill of Marías, or the dry, Borgesian elegance.  In particular, the first part was incredibly slow-paced,  full of info dumping, tedious in parts.  It's definitely not a bad read, but the best Spanish novel of last 12 years?  Not in my book...

I'm sure I'll give Vargas Llosa another go at some point (he is a Nobel winner, after all), but in my opinion this was just an OK book.  There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose.  It's just that (as you can see from my May wrap-up post) I really don't do ordinary ;)