Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

Santiago Zavala

Santiago Zavala (sahn-tee-AH-goh sah-VAH -lah), also known as Skinny and Superbrain, who is progressively transformed from the favorite son into an aspiring Communist and finally into a columnist in a dead-end newspaper job. He is the novel’s protagonist, and much of the narrative is rendered...

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Santiago Zavala

Santiago Zavala (sahn-tee-AH-goh sah-VAH-lah), also known as Skinny and Superbrain, who is progressively transformed from the favorite son into an aspiring Communist and finally into a columnist in a dead-end newspaper job. He is the novel’s protagonist, and much of the narrative is rendered in his voice and from his perspective. He is a disillusioned intellectual and self-disinherited son of the bourgeoisie who is determined to forge an authentic existence. When he is unable to break with his past, however, he slowly sinks into despair and cynicism. His preoccupation throughout the novel is with how both the nation and the individual have been betrayed by the same degrading and corrupt political forces.

Ambrosio Pardo

Ambrosio Pardo (ahm-BROH-see-oh PAHR-doh), a zambo (part black and part Indian), first a chauffeur for Santiago’s father, then a worker at a dog pound. His particular mixture of blood carries an implicit tension that is externalized in the novel. He is both an innocent victim of Peru’s social order and a victimizer who adapts to a corrupt system to survive. Ambrosio’s inability to break the social, political, and economic bonds that shackle him illustrates one of the novel’s major themes: how society, especially a politically corrupt society, can succeed in shaping and determining its members in perverse and inhuman ways.

Trinidad Lopez

Trinidad Lopez (tree-nee-DAHD), a textile worker and political fanatic. Although he appears to be an activist who is aware of the political reality of his time, the narrative raises serious doubts concerning the validity of his assertions. He is constantly in and out of jail, and his activities with his comrade Pedro Flores lead to his final arrest and death. Never really understanding the deeper implications of the aprista movement for which he fights, he is nevertheless beaten, tortured, and finally killed for his revolutionary activities. His death, therefore, is completely meaningless.

Amalia Cerda

Amalia Cerda (ah-MAH-lee-ah SEHR-dah), a servant, later the wife of Trinidad Lopez, then of Ambrosio. Although politically naïve, she is curious about the activities of Trinidad. Both she and Trinidad are portrayed as victims of the political process: Neither understands the functions of their institutions, yet the lives of both are determined by those very institutions.

Don Fermín Zavala

Don Fermín Zavala (fehr-MEEN), Santiago’s father, a wealthy Peruvian industrialist. He has strong ties with the Odría regime and is deeply involved in deals with the government strongman, Cayo Bermúdez. His are the middle-class values against which his son revolts. He is involved in a homosexual relationship with Ambrosio.

Don Cayo Bermúdez

Don Cayo Bermúdez (KI-oh behr-MEW-dehs), the minister of security and right-hand man of Peru’s dictator, General Manuel Odría. He represents evil in its most sordid aspects, taking charge of the regime’s dirty work and permitting those who are allied with the dictatorship to acquire a certain amount of respectability. He is without guilt or conscience. He functions both as the chief instrument of corruption and as one of its victims.


Hortensia (ohr-TEHN-see-ah), a wealthy prostitute and the mistress of Cayo Bermúdez. She and Queta, another prostitute, engage in homosexual relations for the voyeuristic enjoyment of Cayo Bermúdez. She is murdered by Ambrosio to protect Don Fermín from the possibility of blackmail. She intended to blackmail Don Fermín because of his homosexual relationship with Ambrosio. This act of murder becomes a turning point in the novel because it forever dooms Ambrosio to his marginal social status and forces a confrontation between Santiago and his father.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

As in The Green House (1966), Vargas Llosa defines each character through his actions, dialogue, and circumstances affecting his conduct. Although the motives behind each character's actions are never clarified, there are several whose motives are not difficult to discern given their extensive participation in the story's plot and many subplots.

The story is told essentially by five main narrators: Santiago Zavala, a newspaperman and son of the wealthy industrialist Fermin Zavala; Cayo Bermudez, head of police and intelligence and Minister of Internal Affairs; Amalia Cerda, a servant at the Zavala's house; Ambrosio Pardo, a chauffeur for Bermudez, later for Zavala, and finally for Amalia's husband; and Queta, a prostitute at the brothel run by Hortensia. Their stories are told within the framework of an ongoing conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio in a sleazy bar named The Cathedral. Santiago runs into Ambrosio, his father's former chauffeur, in the bar a few years after the events described in the novel have transpired.

Santiago is the central character whose narrative encompasses four periods in his life: his student days at the University of San Marcos, his work as a newspaper reporter with La Cronica, the discovery of his father's homosexuality, and his marriage to Ana. The most important incidents occur in his student days at the University where he becomes part of a leftist group. It is here that he becomes aware of the injustice, cruelty, and repression promoted by the dictatorial regime with the support of the upper class. Unfortunately, his involvement in the group is probably motivated more by his infatuation with Aida, a leftist revolutionary, than by any interest in social change; for he soon gives up his association with the group to devote himself to a mediocre existence. His actions reveal his lack of will to commit himself to any demanding profession or cause.

His father, Fermin Zavala, is mainly concerned with preserving his position of power within the economic and political structure. Consequently, he accommodates himself to the corrupt practices of the dictatorial regime. His hidden second life as a homosexual is revealed during the reporting of Hortensia's murder. Hortensia, the madame of the brothel maintained by Bermudez, is killed by Ambrosio for attempting to blackmail Fermin Zavala.

Ambrosio, Zavala's chauffeur, reveals during a sexual encounter with Queta, a prostitute at the brothel run by Hortensia, that he has become Fermin Zavala's lover. Ambrosio is characterized by an abject, pathetic loyalty, first to Bermudez, later to Zavala. To acquire the protection of a prominent man, he is willing to compromise his virility.

Criticism of the Odria government revolves around Cayo Bermudez, the Minister of Internal Affairs. He is a cynical, depraved opportunist whose actions are defined by deception and betrayal. It is interesting to note that both Cayo and Ambrosio are from Chincha, a province south of Lima, where they knew each other as children.

Ambrosio is the son of an exconvict and a street vendor, whereas Bermudez is the son of a prominent money lender. They separate when Bermudez goes off to school and meet again when Cayo, now Minister of Internal Affairs, offers Ambrosio a position as his chauffeur. As minister, Conversation in the Cathedral 909 Bermiidez supervises an efficient domestic spy network whose main function is to discover sordid clandestine relationships and ferret out any political opposition.

Amalia represents the servant class. Through her narration the reader is made privy to intimate details at the Zavala household, and later when she is employed by Hortensia, to the life at the brothel, the prostitute's dealings with the powerful of Peru, and finally to Hortensia's and Queta's lesbian relationship.

Numerous secondary characters representing different aspects of Peruvian life parade through these narratives. The author's main purpose is to use his characters to denounce corruption, immorality and mediocrity.

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