BOOKS FEBRUARY 11, 2002
The Feast of the Goat
by Mario Vargas Llosa
translated by Edith Grossman
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 404 pp., $25)
"There are no limits to deterioration: it can always be worse." This observation by Alejandro Mayta, the disenchanted guerrilla fighter of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, who returns to his birthplace after many years, freed of ghosts but devoid of hope, came to mind in March, 1990. I was in Lima to participate in a conference on "The Culture of Freedom;' a meeting of writers and intellectuals that marked the beginning of the final phase of Vargas Llosa's presidential campaign. I had last been in the city a little more than a decade earlier, when Lima still seemed grand and dignified; but this time I was struck by the army of child beggars on every street corner, and I learned the horrifying statistics of the populist legacy in Peru: reserves almost non-existent, the country virtually bankrupt, a decline of fifteen percent in the GDP, inflation in four figures. Blackouts, sabotage, kidnappings, and murders had become daily news. Above all, there was the terrifying, ubiquitous presence of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group so relentlessly nihilist that it made Dostoevsky's possessed seem like soap opera characters.
And yet the prevailing sentiment of the times was hope. The annus mirabilis of 1989 had just ended, presaging, as Vargas Llosa would say, "a humanity without wars, without blocs," united by "the common denominator of democracy and freedom." Seemingly more modest but no less significant were the recent changes in Latin America: the end of the civil war in E1 Salvador, the free elections in Nicaragua, the general discrediting of militarism, the flowering of democracy across almost the entire continent--except in Cuba, Haiti, and of course Mexico, which was governed by a regime that months later Vargas Llosa notoriously and lethally characterized as "the perfect dictatorship."
In an after-dinner discussion Vargas Llosa spoke animatedly about his plans for governing Peru: "Now, for the first time, all countries are free to choose wealth ....We have the example of the export economies of the East that three decades ago were poorer than Peru .... We must privatize the telephone companies, the airlines, the banks, the farming cooperatives, support the informales [small, unofficial businesses] in the city economy and the parceleros [poor peasants who rent land to survive] in the country.... We must organize civil society in units of self-defense .... We must clean out the huge garbage pit of populist rhetoric." Vargas Llosa proposed that the state scale back its unproductive and corrupt policies of economic intervention and that it concentrate instead on basic endeavors such as education, security, health, justice, and cultural development, all within a framework of tolerance for political liberties. He planned, in sum, to govern as a modernizer. It was a plastic hour in Peru's history, when anything seemed possible. And he was not alone in his enthusiasm for the "Great Change" that his posters on the streets and his television ads proclaimed. "He's our last hope," I heard people say. "He's our salvation."
There was, in fact, a faintly missionary tone to Vargas Llosa's actions and speeches. Having lost his religious faith in his early youth, he seems to have required a remnant of that faith to embark on a historical adventure that would put his life, and the lives of his family, at risk. He missed the writing life, the novels that he had to postpone, the peace of the libraries. But he was enjoying the adventure because it brought him closer to the example of Malraux, to the creative alliance of thought and action.
In Vargas Llosa's case, action followed a particular plan. Accustomed (as he has repeatedly written) to summoning his ghosts in order to exorcise them, to mold them to the shape of his fantasies, he now proposed to exorcise the demons of Peru not in the pages of his work but in the arenas of history. He hoped to banish the time-honored evils of power from the seat of power. It was an extraordinary ambition, this hope of deposing the past. When people seek to depose the past, other people usually get hurt. I left Lima pondering Max Weber's famous warning: "He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence." I comforted myself with the thought that Vargas Llosa was himself one of the great skeptics about revolutionary ambition.
Being a writer in Latin America has always meant accepting the burden of political consciousness. For Latin American intellectuals to ignore the pull of politics is to admit to a kind of frivolity or solipsism. Their predicament, and their responsibility, is rather like the predicament and the responsibility of Russian intellectuals in the nineteenth century, or dissident Poles and Czechs in the twentieth century. That is why the figure of Sartre and his belief in the "engagement" of the intellectual caught on in Latin America. In time, Sartre and his imitators in Europe and America exchanged that commitment for the sorry substitute of a rigid ideology, but the model left its mark.
When Vargas Llosa renounced his Marxist beliefs--it was a gradual process of disenchantment that culminated in the mid-1970s--he did not renounce his "engaged" stance. Instead he gave it a new foundation, basing it on a genuine liberalism that preferred the struggle for the individual's liberation to the struggle for the society's liberation. That is why he reconsidered and came to admire the work of Camus and its wise anti-utopianism, and discovered--late, but not too late-the classics of modern liberal thought. The apostate Marxist kindled particularly to the ideas of Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper. Octavio Paz once remarked that in his liberalism Vargas Llosa had the passion of the convert. (It was a passion shared by Paz, who in his youth had also been a fervent socialist and who completed his own ordeal of self-criticism in 1974, when he read Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam.)
When I first met Vargas Llosa in 1979, politics seemed rather distant from his mind. The military regime in Lima was giving way to a civil government, but Peru had not yet recovered from the destructive effects that Vargas Llosa chronicled in his first novels (especially The Time of the Hero and Conversation in the Cathedral), Balzacian portraits of a society of vast economic contrasts, oppressed by ancient military and religious practices. Distanced now from the Cuban revolution, which he had enthusiastically supported as the best option for Latin America, and increasingly skeptical that the region's problem was capitalism, he devoted the 1970s to more playful, erotic, and purely literary themes.
But the next decade would be different, and in 1981, as a sign of things to come, Vargas Llosa published The War of the End of the World, a novel of Tolstoyan sweep. Most Latin American intellectuals read it without realizing that it touched on a permanent perplexity in the history of the continent's backward societies: the extremely violent reaction of the masses--usually led by a charismatic savior manipulating atavistic myths--to attempts at modernization. The rebellion of Tupac Amaru against the reforms of the Bourbons in Peru in 1780 was one such case. The beginning of the War of Independence in Mexico in 1810 was another, as was the revolution of Emiliano Zapata (1911-1919) and the Cristeros Rebellion (192(;-1929). And still another was the revolt re-created by Vargas Llosa in his novel, in which the poor peasants of Canudos, headed by a messianic leader called the Conselheiro, defended "God's truth" against the "devil" incarnated in the new Brazilian republic at the end of the nineteenth century. Vargas Llosa's book foresaw not only many false-salvific moments in the subsequent history of Latin America (Chiapas most notably), but also a movement that is now the object of worldwide anxiety: the fundamentalist rebellion against the West.
Power and violence have always been central themes in Vargas Llosa's work, central to his exploration of the souls of men and the nature of evil. In the 1960s, power was represented in his writing by generalized abstract entities--the capitalist system, bourgeois society--that created and supported tyrants and their sinister followers. As time went by, however, the novelist began to change his focus and to note the oppressive qualities of the ideologies that claimed to liberate humanity. The various guerrilla movements in Central America that in turn awoke militarist specters in a never-ending cycle of death were prime examples. At the time Peru was suffering the presence of an extreme Maoist-style movement--the Shining Path--that assassinated peasant children so as to instruct them in the ethic of the "new man." With a few exceptions, the intellectuals of Latin America supported the guerrillas. Vargas Llosa took the unpopular path, condemning the guerrilla oppression as well as the military oppression and championing democracy.
The whirlwind of history had to catch up with Vargas Llosa, and it did. The massacre of Uchuraccay in 1983, according to his own account, was the event that changed the course of his life. A radical sector of the press and public opinion blamed the government of Belafinde Terry for the strange deaths of eight journalists in the province of Ayacucho, which was the seat of Shining Path operations. In response, the president formed an investigatory commission of three members-one of them was Vargas Llosa--and eight advisers. After thirty days on the crime scene, and after collecting more than a thousand pages of testimony, the commission concluded that "the journalists were killed by the peasants of Uchuraccay, with the probable complicity of peasants from other Iquicha Indian towns, with no government forces present when the killings took place." Shortly afterward, Vargas Llosa published his essay "Story of a Killing" in the major Western papers, and in it he showed that the peasants had believed that the journalists belonged to the Shining Path. The experience--and the innumerable diatribes that his piece provoked--finally revealed the harsh truth to him: "The reality is that the wars between guerrillas and government troops are score-settlings of privileged sectors of society, in which the peasant masses are cynically and brutally used by those who claim to want to free them. It is the masses that always supply the greatest number of victims."
In this moment of "astonishment, indignation, and sadness," Vargas Llosa conceived of The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984). If Uchuraccay was a revelation, the novel was a reckoning with this revelation, with the ideological fanaticisms that had seduced the writer in the 1960s, the movements that, "seeking to create a heaven on earth;' only managed to lock in oppression and poverty. To make things worse, the government of Alan Garcia in Peru threatened to nationalize the country's private banks and to put the economy under state control. In such circumstances, it was no wonder that a sector of Peruvian society should see Vargas Llosa as a man heaven-sent, a sort of political exorcist, the only person in Peru capable of creating rational order out of the spiraling chaos and violence.
All his own precautions against the temptations of power suddenly collided with the duty of political commitment. The third volume of Vargas Llosa's collection of essays called Against Wind and Tide (a combative title inspired by Isaiah Berlin's Against the Current) reflected the writer's new calling. He championed liberal economic theories that were designed not to save Peru but to improve it. What was necessary was not the creation of a heaven on earth. No, heaven had to be left in its place and out of politics, and Peruvians had to fashion a more just home where they actually lived.
For a few months, fortune smiled on Vargas Llosa. Weeks before the elections, the polls gave him a wide lead. But the historical demons of Peru were loose. In A Fish in the Water, a memoir of his adventure in liberal politics that appeared in 1993, Vargas Llosa refers to the "manipulation, intrigue, pacts, betrayals, much calculation, not a little cynicism, and all kinds of trickery" that he endured during and after his presidential campaign, including the "mudslinging" and the "torrents of filth," all the insults, lies, and slanders that were heaped on him. One scene worthy of Buñuel engraved itself on his memory. It unfolded on a ferociously hot morning in a small town in the Chira Valley, as he was arriving with his entourage:
I was met by a furious horde of men and women armed with sticks and stones and all kinds of blunt objects, their faces twisted by a hate that made them look like beings from the depths of time, a prehistory in which humans and animals were still indistinguishable.., roaring and shouting they threw themselves against the convoy like people fighting to save their lives or to sacrifice themselves, with a temerity and savagery that said everything about the almost inconceivable levels of deterioration to which life for millions of Peruvians had descended. What were they defending themselves against? What ghosts were behind those menacing clubs and knives?
The answer was: every ghost, beginning with the first ghost, the ghost of the Conquest. "Spaniards go home," they were shouting. There it was, intact, that "savage racial nomenclature that decides the fate of many" in Peru, a country where there is no possibility of civic dialogue, where "social structures are based on a kind of total injustice and violence is at the base of all human relations." Direct political exorcism was not just impossible: it was counterproductive. Vargas Llosa was routed at the polls. Weber had been right all along. Vargas Llosa's personal salvation lay along a different path.
When he was defeated in the elections, Vargas Llosa's friends recalled with trepidation the fate of another famous writer who at the age of thirty-seven fought a splendid electoral battle and was finally crushed by the combined forces of the political-military machine and an inexperienced electorate. José Vasconcelos left Mexico in 1929 for a long exile in Europe and the United States. There he wrote the four volumes of his memoirs, perhaps the greatest autobiography in the Spanish language. It was not just a detailed retelling of the ups and downs of his political career; it was also a confession--in the Augustinian sense--of his passions, errors, blunders, and sins. And rather than granting him serenity, the exercise deepened Vasconcelos's resentment not only of his enemies but also of his country and the West, which according to him was controlled by a Jewish conspiracy that ruled from Wall Street to the Kremlin.
Vasconcelos, the "teacher of America" and the champion of democratic freedoms, became a worshipper of absolute power. He edited Timón, the magazine of the Nazi embassy in Mexico; and he praised all the dictators of his time, from Franco to Trujillo (in fact, he wrote the introduction to a book of poems by Trujillo's wife); and he died, thirty years after his defeat, despising the educational work that he had done in his youth, and indifferent to politics, and in thrall to a mysticism that brought him no peace, but only intensified the flame of his anger.
Vargas Llosa was made in a different mold, of course; but it was not clear what his future after politics would be. He had something secure to which he could return from the frustrations of history: he had literature, which served him not merely as a place of refuge but also as a space for clarity and freedom. Like Vasconcelos, he chose the exorcism of autobiography, but unlike Vasconcelos it was not in order to flagellate himself by exhibiting his "sins of the flesh;' or by airing the ideological obsessions that he had already worked out in his novels. He had already painted the portraits of the dark assassins, the grim soldiers, the conniving priests, the messianic leaders, the guerrillas, and the rest. Now it was the countenance of his own father that he decided to confront: the figure of his own personal dictator, Don Ernesto J. Vargas. He had confronted his father tacitly in his early novels, in which rebellion against the father is a recurrent theme; but now it was time for a direct reckoning.
Believing him dead and cherishing his hallowed memory, the young Vargas Llosa had lived for ten years surrounded by noble paternal figures from his mother's side of the family, until one day, all of a sudden, like a ghost his father reappeared on the scene and unburdened himself to his son about the full weight of his social resentments and his unacknowledged guilt. "He shouted ... and he hit my mother," and "she cried and listened, silent." The father hurled insults at the son in private and hurled blows at him in public. Terrorized daily by his father's threat to "get out that gun and shoot you, then kill myself," the boy would kneel like a penitent, "begging for forgiveness." When Don Ernesto learned that Mario wrote poetry, he took it as a sure sign that he would be a "faggot" and, alarmed, enrolled him in the military school Leoncio Prado, later exorcised by Vargas Llosa in The Time of the Hero. On page after page in his autobiographical work A Fish in the Water, as Vargas Llosa deliberately and meticulously told the story of his father, he faced head-on the "terrible rage" that he had come to harbor for him and his arbitrary, absolute, unpredictable power. In the process, however, his "simmering hatred" dissolved, if not into forgiveness then at least into compassion for a man "unreachable and blind to reason."
So what demon still remained for this writer to summon and to exorcise and to vanquish? There remained the dictator, the Latin American archetype of power, the figure principally responsible for Latin America's impoverishment, who in many different forms has so often reduced the history of the region's countries to a mere biography of power.
But another novel about dictators? Vatgas Llosa was preceded in his endeavor by a long and admirable line of forebears, from Valle Inclán to García Márquez, from Asturias to Carpentier, from Roa Bastos to Uslar Pietri. Almost all the writers of the so-called boom in Latin American fiction had produced fictional accounts of the tyrants, their own local versions of Conrad's Nostromo, the strongman, the cacique or caudillo, lord of the gallows and the knife, who infiltrates the lives, the homes, and the minds of his people. Vargas Llosa had been interested in the figure of Trujillo since 1975, but the fates deferred this particular assignment until the writer had personally experienced the hell of politics, and endured not just individual hardship but also collective torment, born out of the fanaticism of racial, ideological, national, social, and religious identity. Then, the better to understand and to capture the nature of evil, he entered the twisted universe of Rafael Trujillo, the astounding feast of the goat. (In his heyday Trujillo was known as "the goat" for his insatiable sexual appetites.)
Besides the fictional character of Urania, who at the end of The Feast of the Goat reveals the traumatic event that caused her to forsake her country, the novel is centered around the days immediately leading up to and following the assassination of Trujillo on a Dominican highway in 1961. From this vantage point, Vargas Llosa employs his customary Faulknerian technique of mixing times and voices to re-create the whole story of Trujillo's dictatorship: the tyrant's chambers of power, his family, his court, his methods of domination. He re-creates, too, the history of the grievances of the plotters against him. After the assassination, the regime survives for a brief period (Trujillismo without Trujillo), which leads to a terrible hunt for the conspirators, who are almost all slaughtered. This hunt is the most horrifying part of the book. In time (and thanks to the political machinations of the poet Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo's court intellectual), the republic would achieve a kind of democracy. But it would take the Dominicans decades to free themselves internally from the specter of Trujillo.
Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, a soldier trained by the U.S. Marines during the American occupation of the island between 1916 and 1924, came to power in February, 1930 in a coup d'état. Born in 1891, of mixed ethnic origin (Spanish, Creole, and Haitian), he joined the national police, which in 1927 became the national army. Over his more than three decades of absolute power, Trujillo served formally as president four times, and the rest of the time he ruled through family members or servile associates. As well as maintaining absolute dominion over the only political party, he controlled the radio, television, and press either directly or by family proxy.
It was an innovation of Trujillo's rule, in Latin American history, that he turned his country into his own personal patrimony. He created and controlled (as the principal stockholder) monopolies in tobacco, rice, and sugar, and he had full control of the national bank and the electric company. By the end of his life, he controlled eighty percent of the industrial infrastructure and employed forty-five percent of the population. Although some of his measures promoted industrial development, urban and demographic growth, and education, Trujillo consolidated his position by the systematic repression of his adversaries, and committed at least one act of ethnic cleansing, against a defenseless group stranded on the Dominican border and hailing from Haiti, the other half of the island. The massacre took place in early October, 1937 and left eighteen thousand dead.
By the 1940s, Trujillo's dictatorship was brazen, absolute, and brimming with the grotesqueries that Vargas Llosa recalls in clinical detail. It was also utterly un-ideological. In this respect it was unlike the dictatorships that Latin America would come to know in the 1970s and 1980s at both ends of the ideological spectrum, from Pinochet and the Argentine generals to Castro--dictatorships that were frankly totalitarian.
Two mysteries intertwine and clash in the novel with the precision of Greek drama: power and freedom. In the character of Trujillo, Vargas Llosa dissects with clinical skill the anatomy as well as the psychology of power. Here are all the physical attributes of domination: the paralyzing gaze of the tyrant, the myth of the man who does not sweat, the mania for uniforms and military decorations, and above all the irrepressible sexual posturing that--in an almost Taliban-like extreme of the culture of machismo--Trujillo used to impose his control.
Subjection though sex was at the center of the Trujillo phenomenon. Reconceiving the ancient droit du seigneur, he slept with the wives of his ministers, with their knowledge or at least their vague complicity, not just to test the unconditional nature of their servitude, but also to set himself up as the head of every family, a man with patrimonial rights over his own personal island. This obsessive process of humiliation, this enslavement of woman by man, touches a nerve in Vargas Llosa's imagination. That is why the protagonist of The Feast of the Goat is Urania, the prodigal daughter of one of Trujillo's acolytes. Urania--the voice of a melancholy historical conscience, clear-eyed, sealed off from any possibility of happiness--drives the novel. She returns to Santo Domingo decades after the collapse of the regime in order to confront her own terrifying ghosts and those of her native land.
The Feast of the Goat wanders among the collection of bizarre and appalling courtier types that all dictatorial regimes produce: some real, with first and last names; others fictitious, assembled from a variety of real-life prototypes. Present and rendered in lavish detail are Trujillo's assassin or personal policeman (the terrifying Johnny Abbés García, ex-socialist, specialist in espionage, torture artist), his economic administrator (the cynical and corrupt Henry Chirinos), his political adviser, his legal affairs man ("Cerebrito" Cabral, Urania's father), his style adviser and pimp (Manuel Antonio), and strangest of all, the court poet and intellectual Joaquín Balaguer, who, blind and almost paralyzed at the age of ninety-five, is still today a mythical figure in the Dominican Republic. ("While Balaguer lives and breathes, no one else will succeed," one of his party slogans recently proclaimed).
Vargas Llosa captures Balaguer's extreme subservience in a speech that the poète de chambre but shrewd politician delivers on the theme of the providential role of the dictator. The Dominican Republic had survived more than four centuries of countless adversities, including pirates, Haitian invasions, attempts at annexation, the massacre and the flight of whites--all of this by the grace of God's protection. Until 1930, that is, when Rafael Leónidas Trujillo had relieved God of this arduous mission: "A bold, energetic will that supports, in the march of the Republic toward the fulfillment of its destiny, the protective benevolence of supernatural forces ... God and Trujillo: here, in synthesis, is the explanation, first, of the survival of the nation, and second, of the present-day flourishing of Dominican life."
The dictator believed unswervingly in this version of events. But did Balaguer? "I practiced the kind of politics that could be practiced;' he once confessed to Vargas Llosa. "I avoided women and corruption." Machiavelli would have admired the cunning of Balaguer--a small and seemingly frail man, a bachelor and a loner, a fine writer of modernist verse, a cultivated man--during his decades under Trujillo, but he would have been even more impressed by the political clockwork that Balaguer set in motion after the assassination of the dictator. In that truly Shakespearean drama, he did not flinch from allowing Trujillo's heirs to take action against the conspirators, but he later took advantage of the trail of blood to dissociate himself from the Trujillo dynasty, and to ingratiate himself with the international community and the Vatican, which in the last years of Trujillo's reign had withdrawn its support of the regime. At the same time, it was Balaguer who honored the conspirators in death, making them heroes of the realm. Plenty of people suspected that Balaguer knew about the conspiracy and even encouraged it. Today he is old and blind, and his health is failing him, but he is still influential, still a sorcerer of political brinkmanship. "That's politics," the unruffled Balaguer has remarked, "making your way among the corpses."
In this masterful novel, splendidly translated, as always, by Edith Grossman, Vargas Llosa describes in detail the procedures of manipulation, the varieties of censorship, and the subtle gradations in the exercise of power, from the subtle insinuation that an individual has fallen out of favor to the most brutal tortures and killings. In the end, the greatest mystery lies in the voluntary, hypnotic collaboration of the masses with a single man: "Trujillo drew up from the depths of their souls a masochistic inclination, making it so that only when they were spat upon, mistreated, and utterly abject were they satisfied." There was "something more subtle and indefinable than fear" in the paralysis of the will not just of common citizens but also of brave characters such as General José René Román, who, having played a central role in the conspiracy against Trujillo, falls into a state of paralysis upon its successful completion, and acquiesces in his own horrifying and unnecessary martyrdom. Trujillo is still inside his men, Vargas Llosa seems to suggest, he still dominates them, he still enslaves them.
The lingering effects of Trujillo's machinations are what inspired Vargas Llosa to embark on this novel. Such a subject, he decided, could not be presented in the easy form of a mocking, farcical, extravagant, or theatrical narrative, as has been the case with other novels about dictators, most notably The Autumn of the Patriarch. Garcia Marquez's novel is certainly a masterpiece, but in it an almost orgiastic atmosphere prevails, an interminable orgasm of power, not devoid of desperation and a profound melancholy, that seizes the immortal and inviolate patriarch in his "vast kingdom of sorrow."
García Márquez does not so much describe the sorrow of the dictator as share it. The prose of his novel, with its verbal torrents and its arabesques of imagery, is itself an onomatopoeia of power. In this regard Vargas Llosa could not be more different, technically and philosophically, from García Márquez: indeed, The Feast of the Goat may be read as a brilliant retort to The Autumn of the Patriarch. Vargas Llosa does not identify with the dictator. Instead he documents the dictator with an almost lawyerly thoroughness, using as his fictional materials first-hand sources, reports, testimonies, and historical works. His prose is much more precise and disciplined, controlled by a critical eye intent on recreating the chambers of power critically and from within.
The distinction between Vargas Llosa's and García Márquez's treatments of tyranny is not only literary, it is also moral. Some writers are attracted by the erotics of power, in their works and in their lives. That fascination is the condition of their imaginings: the two-hundred-year-old patriarch of García Márquez, with five thousand children, who inspires laughter and disgust-sometimes even pity--is the ideal of the man of power rendered in a kind of prose poetry, in a lush jungle of words, an organic, zoological, telluric idea. If he sleeps with many women, it is because he has not found true love. He is a victim many times over: of himself, of fickle women, of the miracle-working reputation that he has acquired, of the dozens of Yankee ambassadors, of the Catholic Church, of the implacable conspirators who assassinated his wife and son, of the courtiers who trick him and manipulate him, and, above all, of time. In his novel, García Márquez surrenders to the pious and almost tender fascination for that "merciless and brutal authority" that once was "a feverish torrent that we saw gush out of its spring before our very eyes," but that in "the shoreless bog of the fullness of his autumn ... was so lonely in his glory that he didn't even have enemies anymore." Reading The Autumn of the Patriarch, one understands his tender friendship with Fidel Castro.
Vargas Llosa is something else. His fascination with his characters, even with the cruelest of them (such as Johnny Abbes), is of a different nature. He does not revel in their reality for even a single moment. Instead he embarks upon a vivisection, manifesting an immense desire to exorcise all these characters once and for all. He understands so as not to forgive. In his novel and in reality, Vargas Llosa is moved not by an attraction to power but rather by an urge to criticize it, and even to abolish it in those realms of human life where it has no value and should have no value.
So The Feast of the Goat is unlike other dictator novels, and also in another respect: it has likable characters (almost all of them martyrs) who represent the call of freedom. Vargas Llosa's novel includes the perfect antithesis to absolute power in the figure of Estrella Sadhalá, a Christian Arab of firm beliefs, who learns from his spiritual counselor and the island's papal nuncio that in the Catholic tradition, specifically in Thomas Aquinas, tyrannicide is justifiable as a final recourse against the powerful who have forgotten, abandoned, or betrayed the original sovereignty of a people, the search for the "common good."
"If there is anything I hate," Vargas Llosa has remarked, "anything that profoundly disgusts me and enrages me, it is dictatorship. It is not just a political conviction or a moral principle: it is a twisting inside me, a visceral reaction, maybe because I have endured many dictatorships in my own country, maybe because as a child I experienced in my own flesh the brutal imposition of authority." In biographical terms, and in the history of literature in Spanish, The Feast of the Goat is a passionate and incontrovertible defense of the opposite allegiance, the allegiance to freedom. Vargas Llosa has made liberalism into a motive for great fiction. And his novel arrives just as the liberal dream is slowly becoming a reality in Latin America, after two hundred years of dictatorships and anarchy, revolt and rebellion, guerrillas and revolutions. Power, I mean its living representatives and its demons, will not lose its hunger to possess and to rule all of life. Literature will not be able to prevent the appearance of still more dictators and assassins, still more fanatical and oppressive regimes. Still, as Orwell once observed, literature is our natural defense against dictatorship. For tyrants in their "vast kingdoms of sorrow," literature represents, in its radical freedom, something truly fearsome: the last word.
Enrique Krauze is the editor of Letras Libres. He is writing a book on Latin American thinkers.