All great works of art are revolutionary. Beyond inaugurating formal stylistic transformations, such works represent a demystification and condemnation of an oppressive reality and advance the cause of liberation. This is the thesis of Herbert Marcuse in his pamphlet The Aesthetic Dimension. Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat is one such work.
Unlike another novel by the same author, Death in the Andes, which I criticized earlier for its reactionary depiction of the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso revolutionary movement, The Feast of the Goat fits Marcuse’s criteria by its unveiling of “the prevailing unfreedom and the rebelling forces” and consequently “opening the horizon of change.”
Llosa presents a literary account of the attempts by the United States to assassinate and overthrow Rafael Trujillo, the brutal Dominican dictator that it put into power to protect its interests in the Caribbean. The US started moves to get rid of Trujillo after his massive corruption and human rights abuses began to threaten its interests by sparking left-wing unrest. We see the maneuvers of the US government to enable a transition from a US-backed dictatorship to a more acceptable regime with a “democratic” face – from the US officials and intelligence agents’ conspiracies with Trujillo’s disgruntled military officers for an assassination attempt to the sending of US warships to the Dominican coast.
In The Feast of the Goat, we have a stunning close-up portrayal into the lives of the dictator and his coterie of sycophantic cronies. It is a detailed picture of a rotten and tottering military regime that started its dive into the abyss the moment it loss the sponsorship of the US. We are presented head on the bacchanalian lifestyle, the excessive corruption, the violent tortures of dissidents, and other means of the dictator to exercise control not only on the general populace but his inner circle as well. We are shown in a matter-of-fact way how Trujillo takes any woman, even the wives of his ministers or young teenagers, for his sexual appetites.
In the service of this trajectory of exposing the evils of the dictatorial regime and the machinations of its erstwhile US imperialist masters is its narrative device – we jump from one point of view to another from chapter to chapter, thus reiterating the circumstances of the story but each time from a different angle. This proceeds from the point of view of the main protagonist Urania Cabral in the present looking back to her traumatic past, to the point of view of the conspirators, to the point of view of the dictator’s henchmen, and to the point of view of the dictator himself. This builds up the tension up to the climactic revelation that explains Urania’s lingering bitterness towards her father, a Trujillo loyalist in the dictator’s court, and her bitter enmity against the dictatorship – a revelation that further exposes the regime’s decadence and utter bankruptcy.
Several Latin American novels have dictators, torturers, military strongmen, and other villains as their subjects – from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz, to Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, to cite some of the more popular titles I’ve read. However, The Feast of the Goat stands out for its razor-sharp, direct, and ruthless approach to the subject as opposed to the slide into magical realist, surreal, and other paradoxical or self-mocking postmodernist tropes prominent in some works tackling the same topic. The Autumn of the Patriarch’s languid tone and overly ornate language, for instance, tends to mythify the dictator figure and hence lessen his inhumanity and cruelty amidst the magical details.
Nevertheless, this overall political bent is undoubtedly a consequence of its own history, having several brutal authoritarian regimes propped up by the US in the region to shore up its hegemony. Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat is a welcome and significant addition to the expanding oeuvre of political fiction tackling this dark period.