Wednesday, September 16, 2009

26. “La Fiesta del Chivo” by Mario Vargas Llosa

In English: The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
In italiano: La Festa del Caprone di Mario Vargas Llosa, pubblicato da Einaudi (2000), € 18,59

Year of first publication: 2000
Genre: historical novel, dictator novel
Country: Author from Peru, novel set in the Dominican Republic

About the author: Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 in Arequipa, Peru, into a middle-class family. He spent part of his childhood in Bolivia with his maternal grandfather, who was a consul for Peru there. He returned to Lima, where he studied law and literature. He started working for some Peruvian newspapers and married his uncle’s sister-in-law, 13 years his senior. He spent a few years in Europe where he began to write prolifically. His first novel was La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero, 1963), a success of critic and public. His second novel, La Casa Verde (The Green House, 1965) made him one of the leading figures of the Latin American Boom. Conversación en la Catedral (Conversation in the Cathedral, 1969) is one of his most ambitious and famous novels to date. More novels came in the following years: La Tía Julia y el Escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, 1977), La Guerra del Fin del Mundo (The War of the End of the World, 1981) and La Fiesta del Chivo (2000). He is considered one of the most prominent Latin American writers, together with Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luís Borges and Carlos Fuentes. He is also a politician and has run for presidency in 1990.

Plot: Urania Cabral returns to her hometown, Santo Domingo, after 35 years. The city and the country are now very different: the regime of Generalísimo Rafael Trujillo has been defeated and democracy restored. Urania, now a successful lawyer in New York, is not simply another of the many Dominicans who suffered from Trujillo’s cruel dictatorship: she is in fact the daughter of Trujillo’s disgraced secretary of state Agustín “Cerebrito” Cabral. Another strand in the novel dates back to May 1961, when a group of assassins are waiting to gun down the evil dictator. All of them are very close to Trujillo but have their reasons to assassinate him. Finally, the third strand is the portrait of the Generalísimo himself and of his last days: he is charismatic, egocentric and intimidating man, but he is also cruel, violent and a chauvinist.

Some thoughts:
* It contains spoilers*
At the beginning of the book, the chapters that I liked the most were those concerning Urania: why did she leave Santo Domingo so suddenly and why did she refuse to return to her country ever since? Why is she so mad at her father after 35 years? Why is she unable to have a proper relationship with a man? The first chapters concerning the assassins who are were waiting to gun down Trujilo were not as “page-turning”, maybe because I already knew that they were going to make it and kill the evil dictator. As the novel progressed, however, I became interested in the lives and motivations of the killers and I became fond of all the characters. Still, the third strand, detailing the last days of El Jefe, was the most enthralling: entering the mind and the house of a dictator is certainly fascinating. Having read three novels by Vargas Llosa so far (this one, El Paraíso en la Otra Esquina and La Tía Julia y el Escribidor), I can say with some certainty that dividing the book in different strands of narration, alternating the chapters dedicated to each of them, is a way that Vargas Llosa uses quite often to interweave different stories that are nonetheless all connected in some way.
La Fiesta del Chivo is part of a tradition of Latin American novels about dictators. One of the most famous is, for example, El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch) by García Márquez, which unfortunately I haven’t read. Some “dictator novels” I have read are: El general en su laberinto, also by García Márquez, about Bolivar’s last days (even if he’s not usually considered a dictator, he was a great leader with some authoritarian power); A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, recounting a series of speculations on the plane crash of Pakistan’s General Zia (read my review, in English/Italian), and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (also partly set in part in Santo Domingo during the dictatorship of Trujillo, read my review in English). The latter, so different from La Fiesta del Chivo in some parts and so similar in others, was described by Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times, as : “So original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West”!
In both La Fiesta del Chivo and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I found the same way of speaking about Trujillo: with rage, hatred and humour. There’s no magical realism in Vargas Llosa, though (there’s no trace of fukú, the Dominican curse), as his novel is often described as “realist”.
At the beginning of the book, there is a passage about the chauvinism of Dominican men that becomes quite important if you think of the ultimate meaning of Urania’s story (Santo Domingo has been politically and physically violated by Trujillo):

“A ratos, de algún vehículo asoma una cabeza masculina y un instante los suyos se encuentran con unos ojos varoniles que le miran los pechos, las piernas o el trasero. Esas miradas. Está esperando un hueco que le permita cruzar y una vez más se dice, como ayer, como anteayer, que está en tierra dominicana. En New York ya nadie mira a las mujeres con ese desparpajo. Midiéndola, sopesándola, calculando cuánta carne hay en cada una de sus tetas y muslos, cuántos vellos en su pubis y la cuerva exacta de sus nalgas. Cierra los ojos, presa de un ligero vahído. En New York, ya ni los latinos, dominicanos, colombianos, guatemaltecos, miran así. Han aprendido a reprimirse, entendido que no deben mirar a las mujeres como miran los perros a las perras, los caballos a las yeguas, los puercos a las puercas”.

Urania's story is important because it represents the way in which the dictator ruined his country and his people, violating them and changing them forever. Quoting Junot Díaz again: this book is perfect if at school you “missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history”!


  1. thanks for this. at first I thought it would be only in Italiano but I was glad when I found it in English.

  2. Ahah, no. You're lucky this time again. I read the novel in Spanish, though.

    Next review will be in Italian maybe. It's a book by an Italian writer, Camilleri. I don't know if there is an English translation, but even if it existed the book has so many expressions in Sicilian dialect that only Italians could enjoy that it would lose all its charm in the English translation.

    PS: I'm still waiting for my copy of "The thing around your neck", apparently it's out of stock in the on-line shop I bought it. Grrrrrrr...

  3. I enjoyed this novel quite a bit, Stefania, although I did find the ending somewhat predictable and a little too obvious in regard to the rape/violation theme as well. What I most admired were Vargas Llosa's complex storytelling (manipulating different plotlines in time and space) and his ability to flesh out extremely believable characters, two qualities I'm also enjoying in his earlier La guerra del fin del mundo. Thanks for the nice review! P.S. Would you mind if I linked to your post in my own review of the novel? I'd like to offer something to my English-only readers, but I wrote my review in Spanish without providing a translation.

  4. @Richard: Go ahead, link me in your review! I'd like to receive some more comments on this novel by lovers of Latin-American literature.

  5. La fiesta del chivo es un gran libro. Mi preferido de Vargas llosa es la tia julia y el escribidor el numero 31 de tu lista.
    Journal d'Hirondelle" by Amélie Nothomb otro gran libro

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