Conversation in the Cathedral

by Mario Vargas Llosa
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853

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.

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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, Chispas, managed his father’s pharmaceutical factories and continued his father’s traditions. Neither Fermín nor Chispas ever appeared as cruel, arrogant, or oppressive men. Their mother, Zoila, however, adhered to strict class distinctions and had a fear and anxiety of “race mixtures.” As far as she was concerned, Santiago adhered to the wrong values in his concern for the nation’s, rather than his class’s, destiny, and associated with the wrong people. Santiago rejected his family’s wealth, ideology, and privileged position in Peruvian society. His mother’s worst fears materialized when Santiago married his nurse, a simple, lower-class nonwhite woman.

Santiago defied his father’s desire and mother’s advice and chose to enter San Marcos University. There he became acquainted with an activist communist group whose members believed that only a Marxist revolution would enable Peruvians to set the nation on a road of development and justice. Santiago was unaware that the dictator’s regime suspected his father of having joined a new alliance of rich men against General Odría. Santiago and his father were placed under surveillance, and the Zavala phone was tapped. Santiago’s group was arrested, but Santiago’s father used his connections, especially with Cayo Bermudez, to obtain Santiago’s release.

Although he did not attempt to help any of the group members, Santiago viewed his father’s actions as a final affront and broke with his parents. He went to live with a renegade bohemian uncle, who eventually found him a job with La Crónica. Santiago’s writing skills were quickly recognized, and he was assigned to reporting on crime. As part of his duties, he performed an investigation into the murder of Lima’s most famous prostitute, La Musa. In the course of the investigation Santiago discovered that his father was the famed homosexual Bola de Oro. Santiago knew that Ambrosio, as chauffeur to two powerful and corrupt men, shuffled between the sites of their domestic and public activities. Ambrosio witnessed the Zavala family’s tensions as well as the political crisis that Fermín and Cayo Bermudez had to face and to surmount. Santiago assumes that Ambrosio holds the answer to the riddle of the Zavala family. Ambrosio, indifferent to Santiago’s anxieties and obsessions, and unreflective himself, tells his story in his own way and in his own time.

Santiago learns from Ambrosio that Cayo Bermudez was groomed for advancement by Fermín, a senator in the dictator’s mock parliament. Bermudez invited several of his old friends to his home, where La Musa and her lover, the mulatta Queta, played the roles of hosts and prostitutes to the group. Bermudez, observing that Fermín was a homosexual, procured for Fermín his somewhat reluctant chauffeur, Ambrosio. Ambrosio killed La Musa in order to protect Fermín (Ambrosio’s much-admired employer) from scandal and blackmail at her hands. Santiago learns the truth, but this truth culminates in more riddles and no answers and no prospects for a brighter future. Santiago’s quest ends with the despair and alienation with which it began.

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