Conversation in the Cathedral Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Santiago Zavala is the son of the late Peruvian industrialist Fermín Zavala. Lima is suffering an epidemic of rabies, and Zavala is writing editorials for the tabloid La Crónica attacking the city administration’s handling of the stray-dog problem. Zavala sets out in search of his wife’s dog, which was caught by dogcatchers eager to earn a commission, which, ironically, is part of the city’s response to the crisis and to Zavala’s editorials. While on his search, he encounters Ambrosio, a dogcatcher who once was Zavala’s father’s chauffeur as well as the chauffeur and the bodyguard of the notorious Cayo Bermudez, minister of security under the regime of the dictator Manuel Odría during Santiago’s university days. The meeting of Santiago and Ambrosio initiates a four-hour conversation in The Cathedral, the bar-restaurant-brothel where Santiago and Ambrosio go to drink and reminisce.

The conversation drifts to the eight years of Odría’s presidency, the time when Santiago and Ambrosio were young men on the verge of independence from their families. Both had fathers who were closely connected to the corrupt regime. Santiago’s father was deeply involved in deals with Cayo Bermudez. Ambrosio’s father worked as a member of the secret police. Ambrosio and Santiago attempted to separate themselves from their fathers’ paths; both ultimately recognize that they failed.

During their conversation, Santiago asks Ambrosio several questions about the past. Santiago wants to discover the identity and motivation of a notorious prostitute’s killer. On another level, however, Santiago seeks to unravel the puzzle of when and how his life and his country began to disintegrate.

Santiago’s inquiry leads him to retrace his steps as a wealthy young man caught in an identity crisis that, metaphorically, was a historical crisis for his class. The favorite son of a wealthy upper-class family, Santiago was expected to enter a profession and have a lifestyle that continued to uphold the values and privileges of his predecessors. His older brother,...

(The entire section is 853 words.)