Mario Vargas Llosa and the Dominican Republic
Every year I see who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sometimes I am intrigued. Sometimes I am happy, for an author I read and admire is honored. Often, I am mystified, as the politics of the prize distribution is far more clear than the talent of the author honored. Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. I had not read him before; indeed, I had not heard of him, for my contact with Caribbean culture and Latin American novelists is minimal, apart from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Derek Walcott. So, last time I was at the bookstore with a little money to spend, I picked up two books--Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular and Llosa's The Feast of the Goat.
A few months ago I re-read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, the Columbian novelist's meditation on the end of a dictatorship and the pathological solitude of a Latin American autocrat. The Feast of the Goat is a good companion to Marquez's novel, and, in fact, surpasses it. Where Marquez cloaks the patriarch in the grotesque and fantastic elements of so-called magical realism, and largely leaves those affected by the patriarch's actions in passive victimization, a role in which they are acted upon but neither feel nor react as whole men and women, certainly not as women, Llosa engages the patriarch-dictator and his victims, his collaborators, his relatives, and his enemies directly, revealing the patriarch's effect on individual lives from his remove of power. The dictator is not inevitable, nor quasi-divine, as he seems to be in Marquez. He is not a force of nature, beyond human control and in his very being somehow separate and different from those around him. There is much in The Feast of the Goat that seems more healthy, more honest, and more substantial than the surreal corrupted world and decaying god of Marquez.
The Feast of the Goat is set in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, dictator of that small nation for thirty years, until his assassination in 1961. The reader is taken to the island, and then back into the last year of Trujillo's rule and life, by a middle-aged woman, Urania Cabral, a Dominican who has resided in the United States since that year, having fled Trujillo, her father, and the Dominican Republic as a teen. As Urania once again sees her father, once a minister under Trujillo, now an old man disabled by stroke and illness into the silent witness and object of her accusations and anger, the story of 1961 is told. The reader is introduced to the dictator, a man of great ambitions, cunning, bitterness, and sexual greed, bothered by his aging body's weaknesses and the humiliation his prostate brings to his life, the loss of his sense of power involved with the rebellious body's decay, and also to Trujillo's killers, men who have chosen, some for grand reasons, but many for small ones, to free the Dominican Republic of the Beast at the cost of their own lives. Common to all of Trujillo's enemies, and also his allies, is the belief they have that he un-mans them, that they are, because of him, either because of his innate greatness or because of what he has done to society and their relationship with it, their being within it, lesser men. Trujillo's death is the necessary first step towards establishing a Dominican Republic in which individuals may realize themselves, act with free will as whole beings, not as truncated, divided vehicles for the expression of the dictator's will.
The conspirators are doomed. The desperation of those who are willing to act is not met by a willingness to take responsibility and risk by those with direct access to power, by those in a position to take advantage of Trujillo's demise and use the moment to re-shape and re-organize the society he created. The one man who does take advantage of the offered moment, the titular president of the republic whose position is made a real one, with real power, by the death of the dictator, is not a conspirator, but one whose career was created by and maintained by Trujillo. The collaborators of the regime were held together, insofar as they were together, only by Trujillo's presence, in subordination to him and in pursuit of his favor. Following Trujillo's death, the president positions himself by his calm and calculation into a superior position, using the DR's relationship with the United States, and the threat of a renewed Yankee occupation, to deflect his enemies, while leaving Trujillo's son, Ramfis, liberty to avenge himself on those guilty, or presumed guilty, of the dictator's murder. The death throes of the dictatorship are bloody, but out of those throes, the president, and a tenuous future without Trujillo or his family, descend upon the republic. Most of those who freed the Republic from Trujillo do not live to see its new face.
Urania does not see its new face either. She cut ties with her family and country when she was a young girl, and has returned to it to see her father's suffering and to unburden herself, to end her Trujillo era, insofar as she can, marked by her encounter with the dictator despite his elimination. The effects of the man are not erased by his death. He has acted, and the effects of these actions have permanence in the lives and memories of those upon whom he acted. The reader does not know whether Urania's efforts to face her past directly worked. Her relationship with the world was permanently altered by Trujillo, and there is no closure merely in the acknowledgement of his effect or his passing.
The focus of Llosa's novel is Trujillo, as Trujillo was the focus of power and desire in the Dominican Republic during his lifetime. The effects of the dictatorship, the reality of Trujillo's power, are not illustrated in broad descriptions of institutions, buildings, or large scale social movements, but in the private lives, the small disappointments, the petty rivalries and fears of those who surround him and those affected by him: the assassins, his ministers, his wife, his sons, and Urania. The loss of individual control and will is felt at the institutional and social level because it exists in the private world and personal existence of those who live in the dictatorship. Those who are not deformed by Trujillo deform themselves in an effort to survive him, to please him, to recreate themselves as better vehicles for the realization of what he desires, even as those desires change and transform.
In 1937 Trujillo ordered the massacre of Haitian laborers and immigrants in the Parsley Massacre, an event referred to in Llosa's novel, and covered from the Haitian point of view by Edwidge Danticat in her short story "1937". The Dominican Republic, sharing an island with Haiti, maintains a definition of itself as not-Haiti, and this definition is religious and racial. Haitians are black, and to be black is to be Haitian. Haitians are followers of savage heresy, while Dominicans are Catholic. In Llosa's novel, Trujillo is concerned with whitening the Dominican Republic and with whitening himself, using powder to erase his mixed lineage. The Dominican Republic does not acknowledge, let alone celebrate, its full heritage, but, like many other nations, edits its heritage to create an ahistorical image that is used to both celebrate the fictional "nation" and separate it from other, similar peoples. The Dominican Republic's self-image and narrative involves Haiti and the Haitians, as enemies and as victims. Yet, it is the treatment of blacks in the United States that the characters of The Feast of the Goat remember and react against, the word 'nigger', which in the United States had a hostile connotation the same term did not have in the patronizing language of cross-racial friendship in the Republic. The sins of our own nation are often invisible, while those of our neighbor remain glaring.
The dictator of Llosa's novel is on the whole more convincing than the patriarch of Marquez. The connection between power and sexual appetite is shared by both, as well as an enduring relationship with the mother, the impoverished woman who raised the dictator from infancy to acquisitiveness. The troubled relationship between the dictator's power and the United States is there, better defined in real terms and convolutions than in Marquez. It is, in short, a far better novel, and far better history, than Marquez's effort.
Mario Llosa Vargas's Nobel address
- Mario Vargas Llosa - Nobel Lecture
Nobelprize.org, The Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize
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