The Magazine

The Dictator's Dotage

Vargas Llosa's novel about the conspiracy against General Trujillo.

Dec 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 14 • By STEVE LENZNER
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The Feast of the Goat
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $25

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA'S "The Feast of the Goat" portrays in stark terms the thirty-one-year reign over the Dominican Republic by General Rafael Trujillo, the man known as the Goat.

In alternating chapters, the novel presents three stories. The first is the story of Urania, the daughter of a leading Trujillista, and her long struggle to come to grips with an unspeakable act of betrayal she suffered in the days leading up to Trujillo's assassination in 1961. The second takes up Trujillo and his inner circle. It is a chilling if somewhat misleading picture of tyrannical decadence exacerbated by physical and mental decline. The third story revolves around the chief conspirators responsible for Trujillo's assassination.

"The Feast of the Goat" opens in 1996, with Urania returning to Santo Domingo for the first time since 1961, determined at last to confront her demons. At the outset, all we know is that those demons are somehow connected to her father--and to the Trujillo regime, which she has spent her adult life obsessively trying to understand.

Urania's story is connected to the two other plotlines only insofar as the traumatic event she wrestles with occurred in the months in which they are set. The central story, Vargas Llosa's account of Trujillo's rule and its excesses, is graced by a brilliantly rendered portrait of his chief counselor, Joaquin Balaguer. Balaguer was nominally president of the Dominican Republic, and as the novel proceeds, he emerges as a man of genuine--if somewhat Machiavellian--virtue.

Balaguer served Trujillo for thirty years, consistently giving him prudent advice in a spirit of benevolent diffidence: "Unlike the other men in his intimate group, whose appetites [Trujillo] could read like an open book in their behavior, their initiatives and their flattery, Joaquin Balaguer always gave the impression of aspiring only to what he wished to give him." By appearing content to remain in a low place, Balaguer rose to a high one. Vargas Llosa allows us to understand why he was the man who in the years to follow brought a measure of stability and moderation to the Dominican Republic. To the extent "The Feast of the Goat" has a hero, he is it.

As for the third story, the anti-Trujillo conspiracy, it would be comic if it were not so grim. The reader should not be deceived by the promise on the dust jacket that the novel depicts "a Machiavellian revolution." Machiavelli taught that for a conspiracy to be successful "it should never be communicated unless necessary." Yet in Vargas Llosa's rendering, the conspiracy against Trujillo was formed over years and extended to an indefinite number of people inside and outside the government, including the CIA. If it were not for the fecklessness of a general at the moment of execution, it would have had (in Machiavelli's terms) a "happy" end for the conspirators, most of whom suffered painful deaths in the turmoil that followed immediately upon Trujillo's assassination.

Born in 1936, Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's most distinguished novelist. After some journeyman work earlier in his career, he produced a pair of novels--"Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" in 1977 and "The War of the End of the World "in 1981--that were astonishingly fresh and powerful, placing him in the first rank of the Latin American writers who were, in those years, taking the world by storm. Long forced to keep away from Peru, he returned to run for president in 1990, promising to bring capitalist and democratic reforms to a country torn by struggles between the army and the Marxist Shining Path. Though defeated, he did surprisingly well and introduced into South American politics for the first time an intellectual counterweight to the cycles of military dictatorship and radical revolution.

In a recent interview in the New York Times Sunday magazine, Vargas Llosa said of "The Feast of the Goat," "I didn't want to present Trujillo as a monster--I think this is false. Trujillo, or Hitler or Stalin or Mao--dictators are human beings. They become monsters because they accumulated such power that it transformed them into monsters. But I wanted very much to show this transformation of the human being to monster."

As an observation of political things, this is not promising. But it does point to some of the novel's conceptual shortcomings. Indeed, Vargas Llosa's own portrait of Trujillo undermines his thesis, for by far the most heinous act in the novel--and in Trujillo's rule--occurred not at the end of his career, but near the beginning. In 1937 Trujillo cemented his rule by slaughtering thousands of Haitians. Vargas Llosa describes Trujillo reflecting on this deed a quarter-century