Thursday, 22 August 2013

'Conversation in the Cathedral' by Mario Vargas Llosa (Review)

It would be a slight understatement to say that The Feast of the Goat has been the least successful book of my Spanish-language literature adventure so far.  However, I'm nothing if not fair, so I decided that I needed to give Mario Vargas Llosa a second try, a chance to make amends - and I even gambled on one of his longer works this time around.  Let's see if it was a risk worth taking...

Conversation in the Cathedral (translated by Gregory Rabassa) has absolutely nothing to do with big churches.  The cathedral of the title is a seedy bar, where two of the main characters, Santiago and Ambrosio, go to catch up after a chance meeting.  The two men have a shared history, but they are very different people - as will become evident over the next six-hundred pages.

Santiago is the son of a rich socialite family, but he has chosen the black-sheep path and works as a reporter for a tabloid newspaper, turning his back on his family and their wealth.  Ambrosio is a hulking black worker, formerly the chauffeur to Santiago's father, Don Fermín, and he has fallen on hard times.  As the two talk about what has happened in the years since they last met, the reader is treated to a spell-binding trip thorugh Peruvian history and introduced to a whole host of characters, both fictional and real.  It's a challenging book, and the two drinkers aren't the only ones with a headache by the time we get to the last page...

Where The Feast of the Goat left me cold, Conversation in the Cathedral had me coming back for more every night.  It's a novel which is far more interesting, stylistically more inventive, and much more intricate.  The first chapter detailing the events of the meeting and the conversation is fairly normal, but from chapter two the book bursts into life.  Conversations erupt without warning, several at once, intermingled, confusing:
"To work, son," Ambrosio says.  I mean, to look for work."
"Are you serious or joking?" the Lieutenant asked.
"Did my old man know you were there?" Santiago asks.
"I don't like to joke, " Bermúdez said.  "I always speak seriously."
p.46 (Harper Perennial, 2005)
By the way - Ambrosio is talking to Santiago, and the Lieutenant is talking to Bermúdez...

It gets even more complicated later when multiple conversations are taking place (from different times), and some of the speakers are present in two or three of them.  You really need to be on your toes at times in this book...  Which is not to say that it's all mind-bending.  The narrative flows nicely, and the conversations usually hit the right balance between mundane and witty:
"Why were you so bitter, then?"  Ambrosio asks.  "Was it because of the girl?"
"I never saw her alone," Santiago says.  "I wasn't bitter; a little worm in my stomach sometimes, nothing else."
"You wanted to make love to her and you couldn't with the other one there," Ambrosio says.  "I know what it's like to be close to the woman you love and not be able to do anything."
"Did that happen to you with Amalia?" Santiago asks.
"I saw a movie about it once," Ambrosio says.  (p.92)
Of course, there's more to that short exchange than meets the eye...

The book is divided into four parts, and each looks at a different period of time (even if the chapters tend to jump backwards and forwards in time).  Each introduces new characters, many of whom then fade into the background.  After 100 pages, we are obsessed with Santiago's university time and his communist leanings, eager to learn more about his friends Aída and Jacobo - by the end of the book, they've been forgotten (like mnay good university friends...).

One of the main characters is Cayo Bermúdez, a non-descript, half-breed merchant plucked from obscurity, who becomes one of the most powerful and feared men in the country in the 1950s.  Having eclipsed the General who recommended him to the President, he goes about consolidating the regime's grip on power while amassing a fortune, keeping a mistress and ruthlessly crushing all attempts at insurrection.  Oh, and did I mention that Ambrosio is his chauffeur too?

In fact, while the book begins with Santiago, it is actually Ambrosio who is the star attraction.  His connection with the rich, famous and morally questionable allows the reader to taste what life was like in Peru in the 1950s, a story fascinating enough to keep the reader's attention.  And when the pace does flag a little (inevitable in such a long book), and the reader is beginning to wonder what else might happen, Vargas Llosa throws in a murder, one he has already hinted at.  Suddenly, events take a new turn, and some surprising revelations make us see certain characters in a new light...

Conversation in the Cathedral is an excellent novel, and one which has (mostly) restored Vargas Llosa in my eyes.  Like The Feast of the Goat, it's a book concerned with history and politics, but it does so in a much more elegant and interesting manner.  Rabassa's translation is excellently unnoticeable (if you think that's a good thing!), allowing the reader to immerse themself in the story without stumbling across clumsy expressions.  While I don't think the writer manages to hold the tension right up to the end (I thought it was just that little bit too long towards the finish), he still does a good job of making the reader want to prolong their stay in the semi-fictional world he creates.

So Vargas Llosa has managed to redeem himself, and my Spanish-Literature odyssey is back on track - although it's actually nearing its end.  In fact, I have just one more of my library treats to get through before I can sit back and relax.  Which is probably a good job - I have a pile of ARCs that could really do with some attention...