Review of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat and Jean Franco's The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold
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 The 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.
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