Vargas Llosa's 'Goat' -- religion, sex and fate

November 04, 2001|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 404 pages. $25.

The Goat is Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the Benefactor, the generalissimo who ruled the Dominican Republic until 1961, when he was assassinated by a band of conspirators from within the ranks of his own military government. He's "The Goat" because of his sexual proclivities, in particular his appetite for virgins. This is a dark, energetic and powerful novel, written by Peruvian master Mario Vargas Llosa with passion and without hope. The narrative alternates between three plot lines and points of view. "The Goat" rules from the vantage of his aged, sclerotic paranoia; the conspirators plot and then most suffer the tortures of the damned from Trujillo's successors, not yet dispatched by the United States.

The best sections belong to Urania, a middle-aged World Bank lawyer returned to her homeland as angry at having been betrayed by her father, once president of the Senate, as she had been four decades earlier.

Urania visits, nurturing inexplicable animosity toward Agustin Cabral, now a victim of a stroke and helpless; she seems hard, dry and cruel. Only in the final chapter does Vargas Llosa reveal the event from which Urania emerged forever despising men, scarred for a lifetime. The more pathetic Trujillo became, the more dangerous his power.

Vargas Llosa excels in texture, the trenchant detail that bespeaks credibility. Trujillo recites a poem by Pablo Neruda to his virginal victim. He admires playboy Porfirio Rubiroso because he "never gave women so much as a bouquet of flowers." The hand of the vicious chief of the secret police, Johnny Abbes Garcia, is "soft as a sponge." Trujillo's gaze feels "as if he were digging up my conscience," one of his would-be murderers reports.

Intrigue abounds, but only the elite are players; the populace has been dismissed by Vargas Llosa as "brutalized by indoctrination and isolation, deprived of free will and even curiosity by fear and the habit of servility and obsequiousness." So he accounts for three decades of iron rule by Trujillo. Despite a broad canvas where people talk energetically about religion, sex and the fate of their native land, where there's a drum beat in the air, no one considers a politics beyond the coup d'etat.

The CIA lurks as the ultimate sponsor, even paying a professor to write an anti-Trujillo book. Delicately, Vargas Llosa reveals that Dominicans, standing for all Latin Americans, have not been free to forge their own political identity. Trujillo had been a match for the Yankees. After he is gone, Vargas Llosa observes, nostalgia settled in his wake: "people seemed to live better back then. Everybody had jobs and there wasn't so much crime," even as American military aid was spent on a mink coat for Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The Feast of the Goat, a realist version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, offers no transcendence. Plotted for years, the assassination of Trujillo brings scant relief. This is a frightening, troubling book. Its intensity, its uncompromising exploration of the particular fascism wrought in Latin America, one encouraged by the United States, will breed nightmares in the reader, along with a profound sense of frustration which may well have been the author's intent.

Joan Mellen is working on a biography of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. She is the author of 15 books, including a novel, three biographies and seven volumes of criticism. She is a professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she teaches in the graduate program in creative writing.

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