Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Laureate, has written many masterpieces. The free-flowing Conversation in the Cathedral, the foreboding tome of The War of the End of the World, and the exuberantly post-modern The Green House. A contemporary of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Peruvian is a proud, staunch realist. Reading most of his works is like reading the best historical writing you are likely to encounter (except maybe Jared Diamond). But with The Feast of the Goat he took the symphony of history and fiction a few octaves louder – and what he shows us isn’t cheerful.
Latin Americans have made something of a niche for themselves with dictator novels. And who can be surprised? A continent that has produced such caciques, jefes and military strong-men as Augusto Pinochet, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza, Francois Duvalier and others, it’s not surprising, then, that literature reflects the psychology, insanity and leader-worship that surrounded these men. There are a lot of brutal similarities and commonalities between these repressive, narcissistic, shrewd men – but there is one other thing that unites them which you might not expect: the United States of America.
All these military dictators were all backed by the U.S. during the peak of the Cold War – these were strong, brutal men that could suppress any potential Communist uprising on the doorstep of the U.S. And Mario Vargas Llosa, in The Feast of the Goat, adds another name to the tyrannical list: Rafael Trujillo.
Ever heard of him? I hadn’t either until I read Vargas Llosa’s treatise of him. Rafael Trujillo, the Benefactor of the Dominican Republic, was a blood-thirsty (in the 1937 Parsley Massacre he killed an estimated 12, 000 Haitians on Dominican soil), egotistical (he renamed the capital Ciudad Trujillo) and ruthless dictator. The novel is a mixture of biography, psychological labyrinth, and historical narrative that shows the last few days of Trujillo’s life before he was assassinated outside the capital by a group of Dominicans in 1961. The Dominican assassins, now considered heroes – though Vargas Llosa bravely depicts them as men riddled with beautiful vices – were backed and financed by the CIA. But for most of the 30 years of Trujillo’s rule he had the warm backing of the U.S.
But after, according to the novel, going too far by turning against the Dominican church and an American bishop and the murder, by the special intelligence unit, of three Dominican sisters, and an assassination attempt by Trujillo’s thugs on the president of Venezuela, America finally lost its patience with Trujillo. After his assassination they backed – and this transition is also elegiacally depicted in the novel – the election of Trujillo’s former puppet-president Joaquin Balaguer. Although Balaguer was a reformist, pro-democracy force at the time, his nearly three decades in power saw widespread political repression, frequent political murders, the lavish enrichment of his closest circles, and a general rule not too dissimilar from Trujillo’s. When Balaguer was defeated in an election in 1963 by Juan Bosch, a left-leaning, democratically elected president, Lyndon Johnson, fearing a second Cuba on America’s doorsteps, sent 42, 000 troops to defeat Bosch and restore Balaguer – an American sympathiser – to power. Leading to Balaguer’s first twelve years in power, a twelve years replete with typical dictatorial oppressions.
Why does America need to position itself as the one and only moral political power in the world? Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Nixon and Ronald Reagan alone are responsible for the de-stabilisation and return to jefe-rule in a large part of Latin America. Their paranoid fear of Communism lead America to help overthrow democratically-elected, well-meaning, left-leaning leaders like Salvador Allende, Juan Bosch, Jacobo Arbenz and Joao Goulart in Brazil. Granted Fidel Castro had made himself into a terrible, insane, narcissistic dictator; but it doesn’t mean that every socialist leader in Latin America would be Castro-style. And besides, it was clearly not the well-being of Latin American civilians America had in mind – otherwise they would never have supported Trujillo in the first place, or Batista, or Pinochet, or Somoza and so on and so on. They chose not the lesser of the evils but the more controllable of the evils. Latin America, perhaps more than Vietnam and Asia, has suffered the worst terror as a result of the Cold War.
As you can tell Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel has stirred a lot of emotion in me. It is that kind of novel. I would dare say it is a better, more emotive, more potent novel than anything Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written. It is an ambitious, graphic, immersive, holistic novel on a large scale – indeed, it is exactly what a novel should be. It’s chapters change perspectives – from the POV of Trujillo’s assassins, a Dominican émigré called Urania returning after 40 years of exile to visit her dying father, the barbaric SIM chief Johnny Abbes Garcia (a terrifying, despicable character), and even Trujillo himself – I can never forget the moment we learn that this untouchable strong-man is suffering from urinary problems, and during an important function he wets himself and like a babbling child tries to think of ways to cover his stains. This is priceless stuff.
It is rare to find a novel that is so gripping, touching, brutal, immersive and educational all at once – a novel that makes you consider your vantage points on life – and for this novel alone its author deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although, let’s make it clear, though the U.S. has committed some fantastically bloody mistakes in Latin America, mistakes which should not be forgotten, I do not accept the subsequent argument that America’s intervention in the Middle East is the sole purpose and cause of Islamic terrorism. That’s an argument for another day, but suffice it to say, I have never heard of Dominican fundamentalists that drive trucks into people in Paris, or of upset Chileans hijacking planes in the name of socialism – but, again, like I said that is an argument for another day.