Places Discussed

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*Lima

*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...

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*Lima

*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

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.

Literary Techniques

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This extensive novel is intricately structured. Originally it was published in two volumes comprising 675 pages. It is divided into four narrative units, each composed of unnumbered sequences presented from the point of view of one of the five narrators (Santiago, Bermudez, Amalia, Ambrosio, and Queta). The first part comprises ten sequences, the second has nine, the third has four, and the fourth has eight. In the second and fourth units each sequence is characterized by shifting point of view. For instance, in the first sequence in unit two (this is the most complex unit), point of view changes twelve times.

In addition to this intricate structure, the narrative features an omniscient narrator who functions as a camera eye describing objects and actions in a given setting. The telescoping of dialogues is also one of the dominant devices used to juxtapose time and space.

In this novel Vargas Llosa refines his use of narrative point of view, dialogue, and juxtaposition of time frames. Cinematic influences pervade the novel's endeavor to create an objective presentation of the total reality of Peruvian society during a given time period. Vargas Llosa's intention and purpose is to incite the reader to visualize the world unfolding before him and to challenge him to make his own value judgments.

Social Concerns

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Vargas Llosa analyzes in Conversation in the Cathedral the corrupting influence of the Manuel Odria dictatorship on all sectors of Peruvian society from 1948 to 1956. He incisively portrays wealthy industrialists, impoverished civil servants, leftist students, newspapermen, workers, domestic employees and prostitutes, many of whom survive in this tyrannical environment by giving unquestioning support to the dictator. In order to gain such acquiescence, the dictator resorts to a cynical system of intimidation using the secret police and intelligence to blackmail his opposition and to ferret out any possible subversive elements. His minister of internal affairs supports a brothel where prominent politicians and industrialists participate in perverse sexual practices and reveal their clandestine activities to seductive conniving prostitutes.

The complicity of the wealthy class is also explored. Afraid to lose their position of economic and political power, the oligarchs and the new industrialists go along with the repressive measures of the dictatorship. The tacit acceptance of injustice and cruelty generates conflict between politically conservative upper-class parents and their more socially aware and responsible offspring. Unfortunately, the new generation is often too cowardly and vacillating about rejecting the values and advantages of their social class.

Literary Precedents

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The subject of repressive dictatorship treated in Conversation in the Cathedral has been dealt with also in such well-known novels as El Senor Presidente (1975; original in Spanish, 1946) by the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975; El otono del patriarca, 1975) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both novels depict the devastating effect of a dictatorship on the country's citizenry.

Bibliography

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Castro-Klaren, Sara. Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Provides an introduction to the life and writings of Vargas Llosa and explicates his most important works. Bibliography.

Gerdes, Dick. Mario Vargas Llosa. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Good overview of Vargas Llosa’s fiction in a historical and social context. Bibliography.

McMurray, George R. “The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa.” Modern Language Quarterly 29, no. 3 (September, 1968): 329-340. Discusses structural and thematic concerns in Conversation in the Cathedral.

Rossman, Charles, and Alan Warren Friedman, eds. Mario Vargas Llosa. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978. Examines individual novels as well as major themes and concerns of Vargas Llosa’s work.

Williams, Raymond L. Mario Vargas Llosa. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. Introduction to Vargas Llosa’s works. Bibliography.

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Critical Essays