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.

Moreover, in their need to captivate their readers, these novelists had inadvertently presented their fictional dictators in an all too attractive light. They were too powerful, too compelling, too charismatic, too funny to provide, even in retrospect, a cautionary lesson to the Latin American masses on the dangers of personal despotism.

Indeed, the more talented the novelist, the greater the risk that his tyrant would be so dramatically compelling as to win not only the interest, but even the secret admiration of the reader. Precisely because the audience was abject and oppressed, it could envy the dictator his fantastic power, his fabulous wealth, his prodigious sexual success with women, his legendary machismo. Insofar as novelists provided not an objective (and hence propagandistic) view of the dictator as a remote political figure, but instead rendered in intimate detail the subjective interiority of the man, with his personal failings, secrets, fears, anxieties, manias, and histories, he became much too human and consequently sympathetic, worthy even of pity and understanding.

Should the dictator serve as the subject of satire, the unintended effect of such comic diminishment was once again to win for him the reader's sympathy. As grand buffoon the tyrant became an inflated comic version of the Latin American loco, a gargantuan Latin male id, an amusing but still lovable cross of Cortez and Porfirio Rubirosa set loose in the brothels, taverns, dance halls, and national palaces of a crazy hemisphere where history constantly repeats itself as farce. In the hands of a García Márquez or Carpentier, el macho or el Presidente could even elicit nostalgia for the bad old days of the caudillos and caciques.

The Feast of the Goat does nothing to remedy the nervousness and discomfort of those soi-disant Marxist critics who doubt the political efficacy and "critical" potential of the Latin American dictator novel. For what Vargas Llosa has made explicit in his newest fiction is an insight that was sometimes entertained, but ultimately evaded or "dialectically" overcome in the narratives of his left-wing literary contemporaries: The dictator is the creation of the masses. They are mutually dependent and cannot exist without each other. As Urania tells herself, "You've come to understand how so many millions of people, crushed by propaganda and lack of information, brutalized by indoctrination and isolation, deprived of free will and even curiosity by fear and the habit of servility and obsequiousness, could worship Trujillo. Not merely fear him but love him, as children eventually love authoritarian parents, convincing themselves that the whippings and beatings are for their own good."

The Marxian notion of false consciousness returns in Vargas Llosa's work with a vengeance. For Urania's insight (which is to say, Vargas Llosa's) is the same that another great novelist who parted company with the Stalinist left, George Orwell, offered in 1984: The people, the plebes, the folk, the masses are not to be relied upon as the primary and initial source of anti-authoritarian resistance, and indeed may even prove a chief impediment to reform and liberation. Such popular nationalist tyrants as Trujillo did not have to rely on sophisticated if pseudoscientific ideologies to establish or maintain their popularity—they needed only to appeal to the tyrannical desires that lurk in the unenlightened souls of all human beings.

But if Urania willingly grants that the masses cannot, without assistance from above, save themselves, the truly disturbing question she poses is why the cultural and political elite of the nation, allegedly the beneficiaries of enlightenment, have proved so utterly complicit in Trujillo's tyranny. "What you've never understood," she tells herself, "is how the best-educated Dominicans, the intellectuals of the country, the lawyers, doctors, engineers, often graduates of very good universities in the United States or Europe, sensitive, cultivated men of experience, wide reading, ideas, presumably possessing a highly developed sense of the ridiculous, men of feeling and scruples, could allow themselves to be…savagely abused."

The reasons that the elite of Dominican society have for cooperating with Trujillo are as numerous and varied as the astounding array of characters who populate The Feast of the Goat. Fear, greed, savagery, racism, lust, cowardice, expediency, complacency, indifference, familial attachment, patriotism, ambition, courage, prudence, piety, loyalty, intelligence, idealism—all can be said to motivate one or another character who falls under the spell of the tyrant. Which is to say that Vargas Llosa writes no political tract or treatise but a novel in which the motivation of any given character is as unpredictable, idiosyncratic, as personal as can be imagined.

To be sure, Trujillo creates a system of despotism, a wide net of political, military, financial, and cultural influence that severely constrains resistance to his will. As one of the dictator's would-be assassins (himself a lifelong Trujillista) puts it, "what a perverse system Trujillo created, one in which all Dominicans sooner or later took part as accomplices, a system which only exiles (not always) and the dead could escape. In this country, in one way or another, everyone had been, was, or would be part of the regime."

But what most fundamentally distinguishes Trujillo is not in the end his thorough mastery of Machiavellian politics but rather his uncanny personal magnetism, his unique charisma and seductive charm that more closely resemble sorcery than science. Vargas Llosa's representation of the Dominican tyrant might seem simply fantastic and outlandishly anachronistic, like a Botero portrait of the Devil touched up with epaulettes and dark glasses, were it not that he strikingly resembles a fellow despot, who still plays upon the present political stage.

Isolated from the international community, at odds with an increasingly militant Roman Catholic Church, struggling against a hostile U.S. government that sponsors a punishing economic embargo, a septuagenarian with declining physical powers who has governed a once prosperous but increasingly impoverished Latin American island nation for decades, a clever populist nationalist willing to countenance any and all violations of human rights when it suits his purposes, Vargas Llosa's Trujillo seems to have rather more in common with Castro than their ideological differences might lead one to expect.

Vargas Llosa's novel offers two historical "conclusions." One story- line concludes with the restoration of civilian government under President Joaquín Balaguer (one of Trujillo's closest and most trusted aides and a Machiavellian politician of considerable abilities) in the months following the dictator's assassination in 1961. A second plot line ends with Urania's completion of her traumatic return visit to the Dominican Republic in 1996. The era between those two dates witnessed more than three decades of the Cold War, the rise and ongoing fall of the fortunes of Marxism in Latin America, what would appear to be the better part of Castro's despotic rule of Cuba, and the heyday of the Latin American literary boom and its long twilight—a period that saw the flourishing of the Latin American dictator novel.

Vargas Llosa thus returns to the origins of a recent phase of political, cultural, and literary history in order to mark its close. But in so doing, he darkly hints that the end of the Cold War, the fall of international communism, and the rise of neoliberalism may signal not some final end to the troubles of Latin America but a return to those difficulties that characterized that region (and much of the rest of the developing world) in the days before the superpower conflict that followed World War II. Indeed, the timeliness of Vargas Llosa's only seemingly belated novel lies in its representation of a dictator—dead for more than 40 years—whose career strikingly anticipates those despotic figures who continue to populate the world stage even after the end of the Cold War.

Vargas Llosa has publicly dismissed the easy consolations of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history," and his most recent fiction suggests that in the figure of Trujillo we spy a dangerous human type that transcends every ideology and historical period. In el Chivo the reader may detect not just the visage of a Castro or a Duvalier, but also that of a Saddam Hussein or a Milosevic. What sets The Feast of the Goat apart from the other great Latin American dictator novels of García Márquez and Carpentier (works that conclude optimistically and, in good socialist fashion, in anticipation that the age of the tyrant is at last coming to an end) is its chilling sense that the past will continue to haunt both the present and the future.

Significantly, Belaguer's astounding feat of engineering a relatively bloodless transition to democracy is shadowed by an event of which Vargas Llosa makes no mention but of which his (Latin American) readers are expected to remain cognizant. Just a few short years after the Dominican transition to democratic rule, the U.S. once again invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic. Nor does Urania's fate provide much greater solace. She is forever marked and deformed by Trujillo's tyranny. As the 39-year-old woman so poignantly puts it, shortly before she departs her fatherland for the final time, "my only man was Trujillo…I'm empty and still full of fear…Papa and His Excellency turned me into a desert."

If Vargas Llosa does not share the apparent naiveté of his former socialist comrades-in-arms about the future of Latin America (and this despite the recent liberalization of many Latin American regimes in the 1980s and '90s), it is perhaps due to his conviction that the region has more than once before experienced the giddiness that comes with a seeming liberation from the weight of historically outmoded despotisms. Having experienced firsthand, as a young writer and intellectual, the elation that followed Castro's sudden rise to influence in the early '60s, Vargas Llosa now refuses to forget that a similar euphoria swept Latin America in the early and mid-19th century following the wars of independence that freed much of the hemisphere from Spanish colonial rule.

It was, after all, out of the spectacular debacle of those liberal revolutions of the 19th century that the grim forerunners of Trujillo first emerged to assume their dark powers in the palaces, prisons, and torture chambers of modern Latin America. Vargas Llosa's grim historical novel should serve as a cautionary tale as much for his more recent neoliberal allies as for his old neo-Marxist critics.