*Lima. Capital city of Peru. Mario Vargas Llosa often draws from his personal experiences to write about corruption and injustice in modern Latin America. In this novel he uses his intimate knowledge of Lima as the basis for his story. As a young man, he spent two years at Lima’s Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where his father sent him after discovering that he wrote poetry, to him, an unmasculine pursuit. Vargas Llosa found the school’s restrictions, discipline, and bullying atmosphere unbearable. His first novel, The Time of the Hero (1962), portrayed the institution, and many of his works focus on father-son relationships.
In the 1950’s, Vargas Llosa worked as a journalist at Lima’s La Cronica and Radio Panamericana. Conversation in the Cathedral draws on the political atmosphere in Lima during this period. Lima is Peru’s cultural and business center. It runs at a slower pace than many South American cities; its rhythm is more traditional and its people reflect a steadier, calmer constitution. Lima’s atmosphere has been described as dreamlike, partly because of the mists that settle over the city between May and October. Under its blanket, residents meet at bars offering folk and Creole music, shop at open marketplaces, and dine at Lima’s celebrated restaurants.
Cathedral. The “Cathedral” of the novel appears to be a bar or cheap restaurant. There, Santiago Zavala, a thirty-year-old journalist, meets with Ambrosio, a man working at the dog pound, where Santiago has gone to collect his own dog, which had been seized in a roundup of rabid animals. As their conversation progresses, Santiago gets drunk from drinking too much beer and taking in the oppressive memories and shocking revelations arising in the conversation. For example, he learns that his ostensibly respectable upper-class father has been cheating his chauffeur, who happens to be Ambrosio. Moreover, Ambrosio has murdered a woman who was blackmailing Santiago’s father.
Gradually, their conversation reveals a cast of interrelated whores, maids, ministers, bureaucrats, generals, senators, businessmen, cops, madams, and strong-arm men who fit together to fill out the jigsaw puzzle that is Lima and the nation of Peru itself. Although the conversation in the Cathedral is never reported in full and thus never clears up all the questions it raises, it does let loose a kind of labyrinth of memories and associations that form the novel’s narrative.