Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

The reign, fall, and aftermath of a Latin American dictator
Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, is likely the most renowned and acclaimed author in contemporary Peruvian literature. His historical novel The Feast of the Goat, published in 2000, is set in the Dominican Republic. It examines the reign and fall of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, who ruled over the Caribbean nation from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Vargas Llosa’s outstanding novel provides a realistic look inside the regime of one of the most brutal autocrats of the twentieth century.

In 1996, a Dominican American woman named Urania Cabral returns to her homeland for the first time in 35 years. She fled the island nation as a teenager and was raised in the United States, where she built a successful career for herself in New York City. Since her departure from the Dominican Republic so long ago, Urania has not spoken to her now aged father, a former high-ranking senator in the Trujillo administration, nor to any of her relatives. Now, seeing her father for the first time in over three decades brings to the surface anger and resentment for a wrong he inflicted on her all those years ago, the nature of which is initially concealed from the reader.

The story is not a strictly linear narrative but rather jumps around chronologically. In scenes of 1961 the reader sees both the Trujillo regime at the height of its power and the assassination that brought about its downfall. In between chapters on Urania and the Cabral family, Vargas Llosa examines in great detail the killing of the dictator and its aftermath, telling the story from the multiple perspectives of Trujillo’s enemies and allies. While the Cabral family is entirely fictitious, nearly all the other characters in the book, Trujillo included, are actual historic personages. The large ensemble cast comprise a complex web of corruption, oppression, and atrocity that illuminates in intricate detail the horrors of life under the unchecked power of a brutal autocrat.

What’s pleasantly surprising about The Feast of the Goat is that, for the work of a Nobel laureate, it is a remarkably accessible read. That’s not to say that Vargas Llosa has dumbed down the work in any way, only that he writes in engaging, articulate prose, free of gratuitous verbal ostentation, that emphasizes substance over style. This novel reads like a political thriller that might have been written by an author of bestselling potboilers were it not for the unflinchingly frank authenticity with which Vargas Llosa sets his scenes. While Trujillo is an infamous monster and Urania somewhat of a saint, the remaining cast of characters are painted in varying life-like shades of gray that blur the lines between heroes and villains, predators and prey. The plot includes a few very disturbing scenes of torture, execution, and rape that illustrate the violent excesses of authoritarian oppression in startling detail.

The Trujillo regime is just one example of what took place in many Latin American nations in the twentieth century, sometimes with the complicity of the United States. As a historical novel, The Feast of the Goat encapsulates that tragic era in South American history. It serves as a monument to all who suffered and died under the Trujillo regime and dictatorships like it. Though this novel may read like a political thriller, may it also stand as a cautionary tale of unbridled power.
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