Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753

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Mario Vargas Llosa’s major contribution to Latin American literature is his passionate, articulate literary denunciation of his society’s ills. Vargas Llosa uses narrative structures and techniques that enable him to portray the multifaceted experiences of urban Peru. The life depicted in the Peru of his fiction is the life of a society in a furious process of urbanization. In this society, many of the existing social structures enter into a process of disintegration. The decay of the old order and the violence resulting from social alienation, class disparity, and racism stamp Vargas Llosa’s fictional world with a terrifying sense of pain. Vargas Llosa’s narrative structures encapsulate not only nostalgia for a beautiful and departing rural order but also the velocity of change in the everyday life of common individuals. Vargas Llosa captures a nation’s movement from an unacceptable old order into the terrifying and relentless life of the city.

The length, complexity of plot, and subtlety of character motivation of Conversation in the Cathedral place great demands on the reader’s memory and attention. Just as Santiago finds incredible the idea of his father’s being the legendary Bola de Oro, the reader has difficulty making this same identification because information comes in bits and pieces, glimpses of scenes, and tails of gossipy conversations. Although the entire narrative is constituted out of the conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio, it has other conversations superimposed on it. One dialogue contains another dialogue that contains another dialogue, and so on. Each dialogue involves different characters speaking at different times and different spaces.

In the middle of Ambrosio or Santiago’s recollections, other voices intervene to tell their versions or contribute their information. Vargas Llosa presents a view that sensory perception is experienced in terms of memory and language. Sensory perception becomes the screen onto which all consciousness is projected in Conversation in the Cathedral.

By means of conversation, Vargas Llosa not only narrates the action in a series of crisscrossing retrospective scenes but also delves into complexity of character. In the novel, the author portrays the myriad complexities of Peru’s social and racial class system, catching it in the middle of its process of decomposition. The dramatic, even melodramatic, experiences of the characters announce a farewell to Zoila’s world. In the dictatorship there are no heroes or martyrs; it produces only failures.

In Conversation in the Cathedral, young university students have passed tests, their rites of initiation. They consider themselves autonomous, mature individuals responsible for themselves and for the future of their country. No longer isolated within the confines of their neighborhoods, they plunge into university life, defined by one of the characters as a microcosm of Peruvian political life. The novel takes university life as the point of departure for the story, but the total narrative breadth of Conversation in the Cathedral extends into other sectors and periods of Peru’s social fabric. The plot chronicles the years of the Odría dictatorship (1948-1956) and the disastrous effects that this oppressive and corrupt regime had on Peruvian society as a whole. Directly (the planning of a student-labor uprising) and indirectly (the conversations of politicians, maids, prostitutes, and journalists), the novel’s discourse is centered on the question of power. Conversation in the Cathedral is a quintessential political novel.

In Conversation in the Cathedral, the multiplicity of stories creates an overwhelming sense of circularity. At the end of each story there seems to be a connection with the beginning of another story of a previous time. The novel has four sections of roughly equal length. Each part is focused on a major event in the plot and theme of the story: the awakening of Santiago’s social and moral consciousness, La Musa’s settling in as Bermudez’s lover and host, La Musa’s murder, the defeat of Santiago’s investigative consciousness.

At the end of the novel the reader, like Santiago, is persuaded that it is necessary to learn more about the nature of evil. The reader may even be tempted to try to find an answer to Santiago’s initial question: “When did Peru get all screwed up?” It is the need to find an answer to this question that sustains the reader’s interest as Santiago plunges through various sordid histories. The novel is an exhaustive inquiry into the nature and dynamics of evil in relation to the corrupting influence of power. It is considered by many critics to be Vargas Llosa’s most pessimistic text.