‘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 😉

20 thoughts on “‘The Feast of the Goat’ by Mario Vargas Llosa (Review)

  1. I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's not a bad book, but I'd not be rushing out to recommend it to anyone.

    Like I said before, Junot Diaz talks about Trujillo so much better in Oscar Wao. And that is certainly an extraordinary book…

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  2. Have you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz? Dealing with the experiences of US immigrants from the Dominican Republic it touches on the evil legacy of Trujillo.

    This past weekend at a thrift shop I stumbled upon a copy of the Elliot Perlman book you reviewed recently. It's now on my too read pile.

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  3. Matt – I'm struggling to see how it could be the best Spanish book of the past ten years or so, to be honest – not that it's bad, just…

    I obviously have very high (different) standards 😉

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  4. Anonymous – No, I'm not a big one for US fiction (or much in English these days, really!). Maybe one day 😉

    As for 'Seven Types of Ambiguity', now that's a great book 🙂

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  5. Oh well, I rather liked it (and reviewed it on my blog a couple of years ago). I don't recollect a lot about the prose – but then prose in translation is always a tricky thing anyhow. I like to read non-English works but I hate the fact that it is mediated by a translator (even a good one). But that's just me.

    However, I think it was very interestingly structured and I enjoyed the characterisation. I've read one other book by him, Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter, but that was so long ago that I recollect pretty well nothing, which perhaps says something about it!

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  6. I study both English & Spanish literature at university, although I've never read anything by Vargas Llosa (which is slightly shameful!) I'm currently reading The Infatuations by Javier Marías in the original Spanish, although I'm finding it really slow-moving. Perhaps I'll enjoy The Feast of the Goat more, particularly as I like historical fiction, although I think I need to enjoy some lighter fiction for a bit first 🙂

    I'll let you know if I read it!

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  7. I loved the characterization, the play with multiple temporal and narrative planes, and the storytelling zip of this novel, Tony, but it's not Vargas Llosa's best by far due to its occasional heavyhandedness and the overdone symbolism at the end about the “raping” of the Dominican Republic by Trujillo (which unfortunately mirrored he and his sons' personal lives). You should consider Conversation in the Cathedral for its more intricate, confrontational storytelling or maybe The War of the End of the World for its pure storytelling entertainment if you want to try more of Vargas Llosa at some point. I'd recommend skipping Oscar Wao by the way; it's good for the Dominican and Dominican-American background that Anonymous mention aboves, but it's a very superficial and annoyingly-told book in other respects: a bit of a lightweight, in my opinion. P.S. Dual citizenship is no way to have won that contest. Vargas Llosa's a Peruvian way more than he's a Spaniard, just ask anybody!

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  8. I found this novel extraordinary! Each strand was gripping, I was on the edge of my seat to know the secret bonding Urania and Trujillo, the dictator's characterisation was three-dimensional and humanizing, and the sons' brutal revenge against the assassins contained some of the most horrible descriptions I've ever read; and it's even worse because they may well have been true – I mean of course the father who didn't know he was eating his own son's flesh.

    I rank this novel amongst the best by MVL, in fact after reading it I've had a hard time reading anything this good by him again.

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  9. Lucy – 'The Infatuations' (in English!) is coming up for me very shortly, and after 'A Heart So White', I have high expectations 😉 I think 'The Feast of the Goat' will suit many readers – I'm just not one of them. I'll be interested to see what you think about it 🙂

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  10. Richard – I'm definitely leaning towards 'Conversation in the Cathedral' as my next one, and I agree with your comments about the heavyhandedness. Your comments on 'Oscar Wao' also echo my gut feeling about it from what I've heard.

    And yes, even I know he's Peruvian 😉

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  11. Miguel – A shame I don't share your sentiments, Miguel! I struggled to relate to this book – in fact, a lot of what moved you left me cold. For me, it's all about how things are said, rather than what is said, and the writer's prose just didn't do it for me.

    I loved Saramago though, so one recommendation out of two isn't bad 😉

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  12. It's safe to say my knowledge of Spanish literature is limited, but surely most Bolano's would beat this. I definitely liked The Savage Detectives and 2666 waaaay more than this.

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  13. steady is my view of his works ,great at historical context every book I ve read about five or six over the years ,has seemed of the times they were set .I think his biggest downfall is maybe he is too steady no fireworks but he has written so many good books good not great mind you ,I hope you do try him again Tony he is worth the effort ,all the best stu

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