A review of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat
In those heady days in 1967 when Gabriel García Márquez and his fellow writers of the Latin American literary "boom" regularly descended on Havana to attend Fidel’s shrimp barbecues -- in an age when Che still dashed about the globe on behalf of the Marxist millennium to come -- two of "Gabo’s" most illustrious companions, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and his Mexican counterpart Carlos Fuentes, met in a London pub to hatch a grand literary enterprise. Together they projected an ambitious artistic project tentatively titled Los padres de las patrias (The Fathers of the Nations).
To this collective undertaking a number of the foremost contemporary Latin American writers were each to contribute a novel about a dictator from their respective countries: Fuentes was to write about Santa Ana, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier about Gerardo Machado, the Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos about José Rodríguez de Francia, and the Argentine Julio Cortázar about Evita Perón. Like many centrally planned enterprises of the era, the project never quite materialized as envisioned. But during the long decades that followed that meeting, years that saw Castro transformed from the hemisphere’s great emancipator into one of its last old-style caudillos and tyrants, and Vargas Llosa from a literary wunderkind and left-wing firebrand into the éminence grise of Latin American neoliberalism, a good many memorable examples of the Latin American dictator novel were published to considerable acclaim.
The most recent novel by the 66-year-old Vargas Llosa is The Feast of the Goat (La Fiesta del Chivo), which was published in Spanish in 2000 and in an admirable English translation by Edith Grossman in 2001. It is a work that recounts with gruesome detail and dramatic intensity the last days of the dictatorship of the Dominican tyrant Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. The Feast of the Goat now takes its place with the finest novels to come out of Latin America in the last 50 years, joining such famous Latin American dictator novels as Miguel Angel Asturias’ The President (El señor Presidente, 1946), Roa Basto’s I the Supreme (Yo el Supremo, 1974), Carpentier’s Reasons of State (El recurso de método, 1975), García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (El otoño del patriarca, 1975), and Tomás Eloy Martínez’s The Perón Novel (La novela de Perón, 1985).
The Latin American dictator novel would seem to possess staying power as preternatural as that of "el Macho," the fictional dictator of The Autumn of the Patriarch who lives to be over 200 years old and, in a career coextensive with the history of modern Latin America, tyrannizes his island nation for what seems to his abject countrymen an eternity.
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