Both Hollywood and the Nobel Prize Committee will likely take a close look at this masterful study of autocracy by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. The Feast of the Goat, a fictionalized account of the notorious Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, has all the ingredients of a Hollywood action thriller: repression, assassination, manhunts, shootouts, torture, sex, characters with colorful nicknames, tropical setting, and Latin music (most of the sex takes place offstage, but Hollywood can remedy that). At the same time, the novel is a serious monitory work about the dangers and effects of autocracy—a particular concern of Vargas Llosa and other Latin American writers who have developed a literary subgenre around it. The Feast of the Goatimmediately becomes one of the most distinguished works in the subgenre. For Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat is also the culmination of a distinguished career that includes numerous other fictional volumes dealing with sex and politics.
Most readers will probably be curious about how closely The Feast of the Goat mirrors history. The answer is that it mirrors it very closely for events, conditions, and personalities. Vargas Llosa seems to have carefully researched historical sources, including reports by his many Dominican friends (to whom the novel is dedicated). However, a fiction writer also has the right to invent, and the novel’s conversations and interior monologues are obviously inventions or at least reconstructions. Whether some of the novel’s details are historically accurate or invented, such as the story of Urania Cabral, is the subject for a doctoral dissertation.
Disputes over details do not much matter to the overall scathing condemnation Vargas Llosa makes of the Trujillo regime, an interpretation with which historians concur. Although Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina brought political stability and economic prosperity to the Dominican Republic, a country that had seen little of either during its four centuries of existence (mostly under Spanish, French, Haitian, or United States rule), he was only the latest in a line of “men on horseback” rulers. He differed from earlier Dominican strongmen only by being more ruthless, lasting longer, and perfecting autocratic techniques learned from totalitarian dictators of the 1930’s and 1940’s (Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler), while at the same time enjoying United States favor: One of “our dictators,” he was trained by the U.S. Marines and viewed as a staunch bulwark against communism, especially after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. He was also much revered by many ordinary Dominicans, who, as Vargas Llosa concedes, lined up for miles to view and mourn Trujillo’s bullet-riddled corpse lying in state. Impressed by his charisma, such admirers felt a close personal bond with el Jefe (“the Chief”), as he was fondly called.
Responding to such naïve dictator worshipers, Vargas Llosa approaches the Trujillo regime on their level, as though he is shrewdly asking, “So you would like to have an up-close-and-personal relationship with a dictator? Let’s see what it is like.” This personal dimension, bringing hot breath to history, is primarily what The Feast of the Goat adds to the historical account. To play up this dimension, Vargas Llosa exercises all of his narrative tools, particularly shifts in time and point of view.
For instance, The Feast of the Goat begins in 1996, thirty-five years after the assassination of Trujillo, with the return of Urania Cabral to her homeland for the first time after fleeing it in 1961. She fled to the United States, attended Siena Heights College and Harvard Law School, and became a successful New York lawyer. Personally she is an empty shell, with no family life or relationships, because of what happened to her under the Trujillo regime. When Urania was fourteen years old, her father, Senator Agustín Cabral, who was in Trujillo’s bad graces at the time, was persuaded to seek reinstatement by giving up his virgin daughter to the dictator’s lust (the Chief liked to “break cherries,” as he put it). Apparently it was commonplace for the Chief to sample the wives,...