Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

This historical novel by Nobel Prize author Mario Vargas Llosa is absolutely brilliant in content, craft, and (dare I say) execution. The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo en español, 2000) recounts the events leading to the 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for thirty-one brutal years. This political thriller not only describes what happened, but by getting inside the head of Trujillo and his assassins, we start to understand his motives and how an authoritarian leader can maintain control by psychological manipulation as much as by force.

Not only did Trujillo imprison, torture, and frequently murder any Dominican who opposed him, he was also responsible for the Parsley Massacre of 1937 that killed around 20,000 Haitian residents, including women and children. Trujillo escaped global condemnation by being the leader of the only country to welcome extra Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany (the subject of my work-in-progress). 

It's one thing to abuse your enemies, but Trujillo was also cruel to his most loyal supporters, the Trujillistas. In return for prestige and wealth, he destroyed their integrity and dignity. He even slept with their wives and daughters. People tolerated his abuse in return for the economic prosperity and political autonomy that brought their country out of a near colonial relationship with the USA. All this is true.

Vargas Llosa's novel is told in three alternating points of view; only the first one is fictional. Urania, the daughter of a loyal minister, has returned to the island 35 years after Trujillo's death to confront the ghosts of her traumatic past. She's a 49-year-old successful lawyer who lives alone by choice in New York City. Vargas Llosa occasionally interrupts her third person limited point-of-view narration with a second person voice (you/tú) to balances her accusatory perspective, like a conflicted conscience. This shift in voice and sophisticated vocabulary made the book too difficult for me to read in the original Spanish so I switched to the excellent translation by Edith Grossman. 

The second point-of-view is Trujillo on the final day of his life, reflecting back on his past glories and challenges. Vargas Llosa is at his best getting inside this Machiavellian mind. Trujillo is not interested in acquiring wealth beyond using it to maintain power to achieve his goals. He has a love-hate relationship with the USA: he credits being the strong leader he is to his training as a US Marine but would fight to the death should the Americans try to re-occupy his country. He wants to purge Haitians from the Dominican gene pool, and yet his grandmother was part Haitian, and he is attracted to mulata women. As an antagonist, Trujillo is multidimensional and well-developed, a most intriguing villain.

The final point of view is a chorus of assassins, all of them real people with mostly true backstories. These loyal supporters one-by-one turned on Trujillo. They are willing to sacrifice everything to regain their freedom. As they wait in a car to ambush Trujillo, they recall their past trajectories. Every assassin has a uniquely horrific story, and by sharing it, we learn about the history of the regime and the personal nature of Trujillo's control. El chivo/the goat was the popular nickname for their evil leader.

"Trujillo had also killed with a method that was slower and more perverse than when he had his prey shot, beaten to death, or fed to the sharks. He had killed him in stages, taking away his decency, his honor, his self-respect, his joy in living, his hopes and desires, turning him into a sack of bones tormented by the guilty conscience that had been destroying him gradually for so many years." (p90)

"...Trujillo había matado también, de manera más demorada y perversa que a los que liquidó a tiros, golpes o echándolos a los tiburones. A él lo mató por partes, quitándole la decencia, el honor, el respeto por sí mismo, la alegría de vivir, las esperanzas, los deseos, dejándolo convertido en un pellejo y unos huesos atormentados por esa mala conciencia que lo destruía a poquitos desde hacía tantos años." (p124, es más lírico en español.) 

Read The Feast of the Goat to understand the danger of authoritarianism, a lesson all Americans need to learn right now. We cannot take democracy for granted. Also, this historical novel is fun to read, more like a political thriller than a textbook, but as full of facts. The author brings Trujillo back to life before killing him and destroying his legacy. I'd strongly recommend this book to everyone. I really want to see the film adaptation with Isabella Rossellini playing Urania!

Bruny Rivera, gracias por recomendarme leer esta novela maravillosa.

Greetings from snowy Maine!

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@Barrie Summy


Lucy said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I would have to read the english translation too! :)

Great review.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This sounds like a wonderful book. As Americans, we do not know enough about the history and politics of other countries. I am often embarrassed in travel how I cannot name the PM of most countries, but they know so much about our government.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Darling Sarah,

such a long time since we were connected here. Too long. But, as to be expected, here we are on our return treated to a literal feast of a book.

Trujillo sounds like one of those fantasy dinner party guests that one is intrigued to invite but terrified that he would turn up. The book clearly raises a number of significant and powerful questions of human psychology, power and how to keep hold of it.

And, the film trailer is tantalising.

Thank you for the recommendation and review. Book consumption has increased significantly since lockdown so we are glad of more additions to the order list.

Pleased you are well in snowy Maine.

Take care and stay safe.

Powell River Books said...

I agree, authoritarian governments are something we need to learn more about and avoid. I've enjoyed reading "The Fifties" (the book I reviewed this month) to understand the historical perspective for our political and social progress here in the States. - Margy

Linda McLaughlin said...

Great review, Sarah! Sounds like a fascinating book. And you are right that we Americans need to be educated about authoritarianism. Tweeted and shared.

troutbirder said...

Fascist dictators are often different according to their cultural and political backgrounds but at the core they are all the same even the wannabes like our recent. Past president. I do know that the D. R. And Haiti share the same island and racially are quite different. Still I don't recall much about the assassination. I do remember teaching my 12th-graders about another assassination in Central America which was the murder of the Archbishop by the Army in the San Salvador. American foreign-policy at that time thought that the liberation theology of some Catholic orders in Latin America was on the road to socialism and communism. I didn't and my view is if it likely at succeeded and prospered we might not have so many refugees fleeing North out of hunger and fear wanting to become Americans. How sad and shortsighted on our part

Barrie said...

Wow! That's quite a recommendation! I learned a lot of history just from reading your post. :) I'll definitely get this book for my sister who spent a year in the Dominican Republic doing Peace Corp kind of work. And I'd like to read it, too. Cute photo of you! Thanks for reviewing, Sarah!

Anonymous said...

So good! I've missed reading your reviews (my crazy schedule and too much online time) and mostly, YOU.

David Cranmer said...

As an Army M.P., I was stationed in the Dominican Republic back in 1994-95. So I find history of this nature fascinating, Sarah. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Sarah Laurence said...

Lucy, it's an excellent translation.

Patti, too much notoriety from our last administration!

Jane and Lance, welcome back! Trujillo is scary enough on the page.

Margy, yes, interesting that we both reviewed historical books to understand these times.

Linda, thanks!

troutbirder, good to teach these lessons in high school!

Barrie, I'd love to hear what you all think of this book, given your sister's connection to the country.

Charlotte, I've missed talking books in person with you too. I'm relieved you'll get your vaccine soon to finish the school year with less stress. I'm hoping we'll be back to swimming at Simpson's Point by summer.

David, wow, I did not know that you were stationed in the DR! There is a lot about the military, both Dominican and American, in this novel. I think you'd enjoy the suspenseful but literary writing style too.