When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:3)
The dictator novel is a Latin American genre that examines the role of a dictator, or caudillo (political strongman.) This can be a historical dictator, as it is in The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa, which examines the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, or it can be a fictitious dictator, cobbled together from several examples and the work of the imagination. The idea of the dictator novel, though, is not to be a political, economical, or sociological textbook. It’s to bring into question the nature of authority itself, including the authority of the novel, the narrator, and the reader.
The Feast of the Goat is woven of three narrative strands. Two are contemporaneous in time, during the last days of Trujillo’s life, and the third takes place about thirty years later. Each chapter lets the reader see through the eyes of a different character: Urania, the grown daughter of a high-ranking Trujillista official; Antonio de la Maza — a soldier planning to assassinate Trujillo — and his confederates; the dictator himself. The strands jump backward and forward in time and loop around to repeat certain events. Vargas Llosa uses the non-linearity of the narration to unsettle, including shifts between first-, second-, and third-person narration, but the book is never confusing. On the contrary, there are times when it is all too clear.
I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel that showed me quite so clearly what it might be like to live under a dictatorship. Vargas Llosa takes the audacious step of showing the effects of repression and brutality not just from the victims’ point of view, but through Trujillo’s own eyes.
Then he felt the heat run through his body, blinding him, urging him to punish their audacity. He gave the order on the spot. But the next morning, thinking that crazy people don’t really know what they’re saying and that instead of punishing Valeriano he ought to catch the comedians who had told the couple what to say, on a dark dawn like this one he told Johnny Abbes: “Crazy people are just crazy. Let them go.” The head of the Military Intelligence Service, the SIM, grimaced: “Too late, Excellency. We threw them to the sharks yesterday. Alive, just as you ordered.”
Trujillo’s concerns wander: the economy, how to kill the bishops who are rebelling against him, his prostate problems, the conspiracies against him, the political prisoners he is torturing, how to keep his cadre of officials in constant terror, his desire to bed yet another man’s wife, the crease in his perfect uniform. The equality of all these questions in his mind is shocking, appalling. It’s like reading a horror novel to be inside Trujillo’s mind. There are scenes of torture in this book, and they’re graphic and awful, but in my view, nothing achieves the level of disturbance of trying to understand a dictator from his own perspective.
Vargas Llosa is unsparing when he shows us the effects — short-term and long-term — of the Trujillo regime, as well. From censorship to loss of cultural identity to loss of religious freedom to profoundly racist implications, people under Trujillo — high officials as well as the poorest families — are marked for life. These effects ripple out over time, as well, long after Trujillo is assassinated, tearing families apart with secrets.
“That’s enough, that’s enough! Why tell us more, Urania?” her aunt shouts. “Come, let’s make the sign of the cross and pray….You’re full of rancor and hate. That’s not good. No matter what happened to you. Let’s pray, Urania.”
Unfortunately, despite the courage of the rebel bishops, prayer will not cleanse the secrets and the silence of the festering regime. Vargas Llosa shows the unnerving effect of renaming, never knowing the right word for what you want to say — the effect of fear and of an Orwellian desire to twist the truth:
She doesn’t remember a commotion like this in the street when she was a girl and Santo Domingo was called Ciudad Trujillo. Perhaps it didn’t exist back then; perhaps, thirty-five years ago, when the city was three or four times smaller, provincial, isolated, made wary by fear and servility, its soul shrinking in terrified reverence for the Chief, the Generalissimo, the Benefactor, the Father of the New Nation, His Excellency Dr. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, it was quieter and less frenetic.
There’s one name missing from that list, of course: the Goat.
I wish I could have read this book in Spanish. Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian author, but he must have used a lot of Dominican expressions. Edith Grossman’s translation reads wonderfully, and I was riveted reading it, but I always want to know what more there is behind the lines. This was a terrific novel — terrifying, heartbreaking — wonderful. More of this, for me.