Memories of a Skinny Girl

Michael Wood

  • The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman
    Faber, 404 pp, £16.99, March 2002, ISBN 0 571 20771 5
  • The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War by Jean Franco
    Harvard, 323 pp, £15.95, May 2002, ISBN 0 674 00842 1

All long-term dictators are alike: all short-term dictators vanish in their own short way. This at least is the assumption of many writers and readers, and in Latin America it amounts to something like a political faith. Of course there is nothing peculiarly Latin American about dictators of any kind; but Latin Americans often believe, with feelings ranging from outrage to fascination to resignation and back, that their culture has a special ability to beget and abet these creatures, so that they look at them – or at pictures of them – with the stubborn, unavertable gaze of someone looking into a magic mirror. Hence the tradition of dictator novels, a minor genre with major members: Augusto Roa Bastos’s I the Supreme (1974), Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974), Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), and now Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000). The time lag is probably significant, since the latest book is the most literal and least hypnotised of the four. This is a virtue, but not entirely a virtue.

On the last page of I the Supreme the fictional compiler of the text tells us, adapting a sentence from Musil’s Man without Qualities, that ‘the story contained in these Notes consists in the fact that the story which should have been told in it has not been told.’ Or as the Supremo himself says (a version of Dr Francia, the ruler of Paraguay from 1814 to 1840), ‘one cannot tell stories about absolute power.’ The same could be said, with variations, for the Carpentier and García Márquez novels. They caught the myth but not the monster, and they strongly suggest that the monster can’t be caught, that perhaps there is no monster, only the undying myth. For Vargas Llosa the monster is easily inspected, and the myth has been dead for years.

The Feast of the Goat concentrates on the last day of the life of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, long-term dictator of the Dominican Republic, and on the aftermath of his assassination on 30 May 1961. Trujillo, trained as an American marine, had been in power since 1930. He was President more than once, and when he wasn’t he ran the country through a puppet President he nominated. He modernised agriculture and industry, sharpened up the Army, and put an end, through a gruesome massacre, to immigration from Haiti, which occupies the other half of the island known as Hispaniola. The Americans supported him because, as Cordell Hull said, in a phrase since used countless times of other unappealing figures, ‘he was a son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch.’ But by 1961 he wasn’t their son of a bitch any more. He had fallen foul of the Catholic Church, which had issued a Pastoral Letter against the atrocities of his regime; and his Latin American policies, including an attempt on the life of Rómulo Betancourt, the President of Venezuela, had become too wayward for the American Congress, even after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, or perhaps especially after that. The Americans therefore looked kindly on a conspiracy to assassinate Trujillo, but don’t seem to have provided much help beyond a few guns.

The novel has a triple storyline, and the narrative machinery, although skilfully assembled, creaks a bit for the first third or so of the book. We meet Urania Cabral, a Dominican-born woman who is now a New York lawyer. She is staying in a hotel in Santo Domingo, a city which for a long time was called Ciudad Trujillo. The date is 1996, she hasn’t been back to her country since she left in 1961, when she was 14. Her father has had a stroke, but she hasn’t come back to take care of him, or even to worry about him. She’s not really sure why she has come back, since she hasn’t answered letters or telephone calls from any member of her family since she left. Perhaps she has returned to gloat over her father’s impotence and diminution, the once powerful Senator Cabral become a little old invalid. She doesn’t think so, though. ‘Do you despise him? Do you hate him? Still? “Not anymore,” she says aloud.’ She’s still a long way from forgiving him, though. For what? We’ll see in the end, although most readers will have guessed long before all the lurid and shabby details come out.

In the next chapter we meet Trujillo himself. It’s early morning, still dark. A few minutes to go till four o’clock, the time he rises every day. ‘Not a minute before, not a minute after.’ He thinks about his day, himself, politics, the Americans, the Church. He gets up, rides his exercise bike, does another 15 minutes on the rowing machine. He bathes, dresses, and is in his office in the National Palace by five.

Chapter Three brings us the conspirators, or some of the conspirators, four men waiting in a car on the road to San Cristóbal. Trujillo has a country place in San Cristóbal, where he takes, or has brought to him, the compliant young women he needs, and where he is supposed to go that evening. There is plenty of realistic dialogue among the waiting men, and the first of a set of flashbacks. It gives us the story of one of them, telling us how he got here, to this time and place and plot. There are more conspirators in other cars up the road, and more flashbacks to come, once we’ve worked through the other three members of the present group.

The chapters now follow like clockwork, alternating but not exactly cross-cutting, because the separate storylines don’t have much to say to each other: Urania, Trujillo, conspirators, Urania, Trujillo, conspirators, in the same order until quite late in the book, when Trujillo is finally shot, and the conspiracy is followed out into its miserable consequences. Urania visits her father, and talks at him, unravelling her anger and distress, not at all sure whether he understands. Her cousin arrives, a dear companion of her youth, and she goes to dinner with the cousin, the cousin’s mother and some other relatives. She tells them, in spasms, the full story of what happened to her, and why she left. Meanwhile, back in 1961, Trujillo sees his sinister head of intelligence, a senator who is one of his chief advisers, and the puppet President Joaquín Balaguer, later to become a repeatedly elected non-puppet President of the country. He attends a lunch at which his old marine instructor receives a decoration. He takes a walk along the Malecón, and rebukes the head of the Armed Forces because of a dirty sewer he has seen outside an Air Force base. Cleanliness is a mania with him, a model for all discipline. Throughout the day he worries about his bladder, since he has prostate cancer and is prone to leak a little onto his smart suits and uniforms. He remembers a skinny girl and a bad experience he has had with her. We’re pretty sure the skinny girl is the young Urania, but we haven’t collated the dates yet, and we’re not going to get the full account until the last pages. This is one meaning of the novel’s title. Fiesta also means ‘party’ in Spanish, and Trujillo’s panders always tell the girls they are invited to a party. The other meaning of fiesta is ‘feast day’, and refers, of course, to the day the goat is finally sacrificed – although goats are usually sacrificed as representatives of human piety and contrition, rather than for their own goatish sins. Trujillo is looking forward to a sexual encounter of a much more satisfying kind this evening, when he gets to San Cristóbal.

Later the same day, the conspirators, still waiting on the road, are wondering if Trujillo will really come or will have changed his plans, and each duly gets his explanatory flashback. The machinery really creaks here, although the individual stories do build up a satisfyingly intricate picture. Then Trujillo’s car finally appears, he gets shot and killed, and the novel arrives at its truly mesmerising pages. It’s no longer quite a dictator novel at this point, because the dictator is gone; but it is an intensely intelligent political novel, about conspiracy and succession and survival and death. If Vargas Llosa tells us much less about the lure of dictators than the other novelists, takes us less deeply into the ways power is imagined and lived by the people who dream of it and suffer from it, he tells us far more about the details of day-to-day intrigue, and the sordid, sadistic minutiae of torture and murder.

The Urania story continues to hold our attention, and its relevance is now clear. Her father, the Senator, Trujillo’s long-time collaborator, has fallen from favour, been stripped of his post and honours, and had his assets frozen. He doesn’t know why, can’t think what he has done, and is completely desperate, a distinguished, stylish man going to pieces. It’s not surprising that he can’t think what he has done, because he hasn’t done anything, his disfavour is just a whim, a test, an expression of Trujillo’s sense that Senator Cabral is a little too confident. But of course Cabral can’t know this, and wouldn’t believe it if he was told, and he reaches for the ultimate solution, proposed to him by a corrupt old friend of his, also a crony of Trujillo’s: he will offer his daughter to the Goat, and the Goat will forgive him for whatever he has or has not done. We may expect resistance from the young Urania at this point, but she goes along in a daze, and is violently deflowered, although Trujillo turns out to be too impotent to do this through the usual means. His impotence is the source of his lingering memory, even on the day of his death, of the skinny girl who shamed him. Urania flees to the sisters of her convent school, who manage to whisk her out of the country to which she has not returned till now. She has allowed no man to touch her since.

There is a tidy novelistic completeness to this story, and I don’t mean to diminish its horror or the firmness with which Vargas Llosa goes through with the telling of it. But it’s hard, in a historical novel, to think of fictional characters as suffering in quite the same way as the historical ones do, and for me the real triumph of this book lies in its study of two people: José René Román, nicknamed Pupo, the rebuked head of the Armed Forces I’ve already mentioned; and Joaquín Balaguer, the puppet President who ceases to be a puppet, holds the country together, and with the discreet aid of the United States Navy, sees off into exile all the rampaging members of the Trujillo family, widow, sons, daughter, brothers, the lot.

Although he is not waiting on the road, and will not do the actual shooting, Pupo Román is the key figure in the conspiracy. He has agreed that as soon as he is shown Trujillo’s corpse, he will take over, and form a provisional government – he has all his men posted in the appropriate places, and the Armed Forces will follow him. Yet when his colleagues arrive at his house with the corpse, he is not there. When they go to his office, they are denied entry. What has happened? Has he got scared? Has he betrayed them? Neither, we learn, or rather both and neither. He has frozen. He is not afraid, or doesn’t think he is afraid, and he is still dedicated to the conspiracy. But from the moment he learns of Trujillo’s death, shortly before his companions arrive with the corpse, he is in a kind of trance. ‘From that time, and in all the minutes and hours that followed, when his fate was decided, and the fate of his family, the conspirators, and, in the long run, the Dominican Republic, General José René Román always knew with absolute lucidity what he should do. Why did he do exactly the opposite?’ He actually does worse than exactly the opposite: he does the very worst thing he could do. The opposite would have been to go over to Trujillo and save his skin, but the General neither betrays the conspiracy nor acts for it. He sleepwalks through the next several hours, so visibly distraught that everyone knows he must be part of the plot and wonders why he isn’t giving the appropriate orders. He doesn’t die, after appalling tortures, until October 1961, but he still doesn’t know why he failed to act. ‘In the sudden attacks of lucidity that reminded him he was alive, that it hadn’t ended, he tortured himself [literally, ‘martyred himself’] with the same question: why, knowing that this was waiting for you, why didn’t you act as you should have? The question hurt more than the torture he faced with great courage, perhaps to prove to himself that cowardice was not the reason he had acted so indecisively on that endless night of 31 May 1961.’ Was the magnetism of Trujillo too strong, still working its magic from beyond death? Or was Pupo Román a kind of Conradian character, unable to act at a crucial moment because crucial moments, precisely, were not for him, because his sense of their unrepeatable, undeniable importance robbed him of all his usual capacities?

Balaguer, in this context, is Pupo Román’s unmistakable counterpart, the nullity who turned out to be something. Told to resign by Trujillo’s blustering brothers, he politely says he thinks he should remain President until Ramfis Trujillo, the oldest son, returns from Paris. When Ramfis returns, Balaguer makes a deal with him. He, Balaguer, will turn a blind eye while Ramfis exacts his revenge, which consists of the capture and torture of most of the conspirators and the killing of others, as well as the killing of innocent assistants, drivers, guards, so that they will not talk. Only two of the conspirators survive, managing to hide away until the searches and the vengeance are over. In return, Ramfis will keep his family under control, and discreetly steer them out of the country, allowing Balaguer to build a new alliance with the United States and make peace with the Catholic Church, which requires all kinds of gesture towards democracy and above all some severe disavowals of Trujillo and his achievements. Finally, Ramfis too leaves the country. In Vargas Llosa’s account, Balaguer doesn’t put a foot wrong at any stage of this process, and I was so caught up in the immaculate astuteness of his tactics that I almost forgot he was one of the Goat’s closest accomplices for years.

But then this is perhaps where we need to read some of the other dictator novels as well, and to return to the myth, which is significant in its own way. In The Feast of the Goat it is one of the conspirators who speaks of ‘the spell that had kept so many Dominicans devoted, body and soul, to Trujillo’. El encantamiento, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’, ‘bewitchment’. It is Don Quixote’s explanation of so many strange things that have happened to him – except that for him the strange thing is that things are not strange, they have been enchanted back into what looks like banal reality. The trick would be to understand the banality and the enchantment, and I wonder if it’s possible to do both. The conspirators in the novel were, almost all of them, ardent Trujillistas before they turned assassins and national heroes. What ended their enchantment? Vargas Llosa gives us reasons aplenty, but they are all trivial, full of personal offence and easy moralising, quite insufficient to break a real enchantment. So was their enchantment not real, or are these not the real reasons? Perhaps there is a banality of political conversion, as well as a banality of evil.

‘Different time lines run through these chapters,’ Jean Franco says of The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City. ‘The rapid time of modern communications, the frozen time of military dictatorships, the retrospective time of memory, and the strange temporalities of residues and remnants of the past.’ By ‘the lettered city’, a phrase she borrows from the Uruguayan critic Angel Rama, she means the unparalleled influence, over twenty years, of writers on the cultural and political imagination of Latin America. She knows the lettered city was usually doggedly masculine, and managed to forget pretty thoroughly the indigenous populations of the Americas, but she respects its achievements, and she mourns its loss. In a telling quotation she reports the Mexican writer and dissident José Revueltas as saying to her in 1970 that ‘the 20th century has not existed.’ She interprets this as meaning the promises of the Enlightenment and of 19th-century science ended only in the Cold War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But we could say – I think Franco would say – that this is what the 20th century was, and Franco’s book is in effect a grim, expert tour of Latin America’s conversion to neo-liberalism, and its complete loss of its old utopian aspirations. The novels of the Boom of the 1960s were deeply engaged with problems of development, she says (‘more than anything they are staged at the moment when people no longer believe the fantasy of progress and development but act as if they do’), and she has excellent pages on Roa Bastos, Fuentes, García Márquez, Cortazar, and especially Onetti. She also has just and subtle things to say about Neruda and his poetic gifts and his romantic Stalinism, and she finds literary and political hope in the work of writers like the Mexican Carlos Monsiváis and the Chilean Diamela Eltit. But overall the story gets worse, and Franco speaks in her last paragraph of ‘the shoals of present difficulties’, and of ‘the many versions of utopia that have foundered over the last forty years’. The Feast of the Goat, I’m afraid, can only confirm her view. She calls Vargas Llosa, in his political career, ‘the Newt Gingrich of Peru, a rebel against statism and champion of hegemonic capitalism and the free market against prevailing leftist opinion’. This is a little harsh, and the novel doesn’t show any of this. It doesn’t deny any of it either. The end of Trujillo did not mean the end of atrocity in the Dominican Republic or anywhere else. But with the narrowing and hardening of the regime in Castro’s Cuba and the general collapse of the Latin American Left, it did offer an early warning that corrupt, conservative, agile, American-supported democracies were going to be the region’s best deal for some time to come. Vargas Llosa might not call it a warning. It is significant that The Feast of the Goat stops well before the American invasion of the Dominican Republic in June 1965.