Big Daddy

The dictator novel and the liberation of Latin America.

The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 404 pages, $25

In those heady days in 1967 when Gabriel García Márquez and his fellow writers of the Latin American literary "boom" regularly descended on Havana to attend Fidel's shrimp barbecues -- in an age when Che still dashed about the globe on behalf of the Marxist millennium to come -- two of "Gabo's" most illustrious companions, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and his Mexican counterpart Carlos Fuentes, met in a London pub to hatch a grand literary enterprise. Together they projected an ambitious artistic project tentatively titled Los padres de las patrias (The Fathers of the Nations).

To this collective undertaking a number of the foremost contemporary Latin American writers were each to contribute a novel about a dictator from their respective countries: Fuentes was to write about Santa Ana, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier about Gerardo Machado, the Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos about José Rodríguez de Francia, and the Argentine Julio Cortázar about Evita Perón. Like many centrally planned enterprises of the era, the project never quite materialized as envisioned. But during the long decades that followed that meeting, years that saw Castro transformed from the hemisphere's great emancipator into one of its last old-style caudillos and tyrants, and Vargas Llosa from a literary wunderkind and left-wing firebrand into the éminence grise of Latin American neoliberalism, a good many memorable examples of the Latin American dictator novel were published to considerable acclaim.

The most recent novel by the 66-year-old Vargas Llosa is The Feast of the Goat (La Fiesta del Chivo), which was published in Spanish in 2000 and in an admirable English translation by Edith Grossman in 2001. It is a work that recounts with gruesome detail and dramatic intensity the last days of the dictatorship of the Dominican tyrant Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. The Feast of the Goat now takes its place with the finest novels to come out of Latin America in the last 50 years, joining such famous Latin American dictator novels as Miguel Angel Asturias' The President (El señor Presidente, 1946), Roa Basto's I the Supreme (Yo el Supremo, 1974), Carpentier's Reasons of State (El recurso de método, 1975), García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch (El otoño del patriarca, 1975), and Tomás Eloy Martínez's The Perón Novel (La novela de Perón, 1985).

The Latin American dictator novel would seem to possess staying power as preternatural as that of "el Macho," the fictional dictator of The Autumn of the Patriarch who lives to be over 200 years old and, in a career coextensive with the history of modern Latin America, tyrannizes his island nation for what seems to his abject countrymen an eternity.

Of course, the enduring power of the Latin American dictator novel has everything to do with the enduring power of Latin American dictators. It is a non-fictional work of historical and political analysis, Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (Facundo: civilización y barbarie, 1845), by the Argentine politician and statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, that is regarded as the first great literary chronicle about a Latin American dictator and as a seminal influence on the great Latin American dictator novels to follow. In the course of a polemical critique of his political adversaries -- Juan Manuel de Rosas, who ruthlessly wielded power in Argentina between 1829 and 1851, and the sanguinary provincial caudillo, Facundo Quiroga -- Sarmiento presented himself as an advocate of enlightened and liberal principles as against the barbarism and savagery of the nation's strongmen.

Writing in an age before the advent of American gunboat diplomacy and Yankee imperialism in Latin America (the Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding), Sarmiento looked to the United States as a model of what a liberal, progressive, and modernizing Argentina might become. While Sarmiento's work has been long acknowledged as an ur-text by the many practitioners of the Latin American dictator novel, they have generally, and quite understandably, failed to share his enthusiasm for the burgeoning political influence of their powerful neighbor to the north.

Indeed, one of the constant themes running through the Latin American dictator novel, a theme that received special prominence during the literary "boom" of the 1960s and '70s, was the interdependence of the Latin American tyrant and Yankee imperialism. While more sympathetic than other Latin American novels to the (all too often unrealized) liberationist potential of the United States as a home of liberal democratic principles, institutions, and practices, The Feast of the Goat proves no exception.

One of the first graduates of the Dominican National Police (a constabulary force created by the U.S. military during its occupation of the Dominican Republic in the late 1920s), Trujillo remained in power for nearly 32 years with the tacit backing of the CIA and an impressive array of American "representatives, senators, governors, mayors, lawyers and reporters" who received generous bribes and political favors from the Dominican dictator. A longtime darling of U.S. governments because of his hard-line anti-communist stance, Vargas Llosa's Trujillo in his final days in May 1961 is outraged to find himself abruptly out of favor with a U.S. administration that, much like Claude Rains in Casablanca, is unaccountably shocked to discover that el Chivo ("the goat," Trujillo's nickname) has compiled a profoundly dismaying human rights record.

Vargas Llosa's novel revolves around the final day in the life of the beleaguered tyrant. A group of Dominican conspirators, among whom are several lifelong supporters of the regime, receive minimal material backing from the CIA and bring to a violent close the life and political career of this most unsavory of dictators. And yet, as with so many attempts before, Trujillo's assassination is nearly bungled; all but two of the conspirators meet a violent end (and in most cases far more gruesome than their victim's) at the hands of the vengeful Trujillo family and their remorseless political allies. But for chance, Trujillo might well have extended his reign until dotage brought it to an inglorious end.

That is because in his last days, like so many Latin American tyrants before him, Trujillo plans to turn the sudden opposition of his North American patron to his advantage. Nothing promises to reinvigorate his flagging popularity more than to face up to the Yankee aggressor in the name of la patria. Shortly before his death, Trujillo is already on the offensive, denouncing the U.S. in public speeches that appeal to Dominican nationalism and secretly plotting to realign the Dominican Republic with his former nemesis, the Soviet Union, and its communist allies (which include Castro's Cuba).

It's a credit to Vargas Llosa that his conversion to neoliberalism has not meant that he has become merely an apologist for U.S. political hegemony, any more than it has made him a reactionary apologist for authoritarian regimes (regardless of their anti-communist credentials). Vargas Llosa's complex view of the tangled interrelationship of American and Latin American politics is embodied in the fictional fate of one of his protagonists, Urania Cabral, a Dominican who returns in 1996 to her country after decades in exile in order to pay a last and none too reconciliatory visit to her ailing father, a man who once served in Trujillo's inner circle of advisers and confidantes. In order to placate the tyrant who has cast him into political limbo in 1961, he had offered up his 14-year-old daughter as a sexual sacrifice to Trujillo. Permanently traumatized by her brutal violation, Urania flees the Dominican Republic for a sterile and wearisome expatriate existence before she belatedly returns one final time to her fatherland.

The fact that as a single Latin American female she manages without the support of family and intimate friends to find educational, financial, and professional -- though not emotional -- fulfillment in her adopted United States marks the political distance Vargas Llosa has traveled. If the Yankee imperialists in Washington have long been part of Latin America's political problems, the civic society that they ostensibly represent has in any case offered a uniquely inviting realm of political and economic freedom in which the Latin American expatriate might find refuge, dignity, and prosperity, if not consummate happiness.

Though the authors who most conspicuously contributed to the literary prestige of the Latin American dictator novel can generally boast impeccable left-wing credentials (García Márquez, Roa Bastos, and Carpentier were all supporters of the Cuban Revolution, Carpentier having once served as an official representative of the Castro government), the genre has not fared well with most leftist academic and literary critics, most especially those faithful to a tradition of Marxist or socialist literary analysis. Many have argued that the genre is unaccountably retrograde, for the "protagonist" of these novels -- the larger-than-life dictator who exemplifies the dangers of personalismo, of personal authoritarian rule -- was already a historical anachronism by the time the genre achieved renewed prominence in the mid-'70s.

By then Latin American dictatorships had increasingly become technocratic, impersonal, and bureaucratic police states on the model of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay (if all the more vicious and oppressive for their scientific refinement of the methods of tyrannical rule). The practitioners of the dictator novel, so the critics alleged, had unaccountably returned to a bygone era of colorful and outrageous tyrants that typified Latin America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather than face the brave new Latin American world of the 1970s.

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