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Hispanic Magazine

The Final Days Of A Tyrant

A fictional recount of the end of the Trujillo era

By Fabiola Santiago

Copyright © 2001 Hispanic Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Hardcover, 404 pages, $25. Fiction.

For decades, the masterful Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has been captivated by the dramatic dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, a ruthless tyrant nicknamed "The Goat" who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. In his enthralling novel The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa embarks on a fictional reconstruction of the final days of an egotistical general who exercised an inordinate amount of power over the people who surrounded him.

The story is narrated through three shifting viewpoints–that of a Manhattan lawyer who returns to the Dominican Republic after 35 years, that of a band of conspirators who plot to assassinate Trujillo, and through the thoughts of the dictator himself.

But it is the story of Urania Cabral that cloaks the novel with a mournful voice and tragic texture. Urania is a successful 49-year-old New Yorker who works for the World Bank, but she is haunted by an inexplicable emptiness and bouts of terror. The novel opens with Urania’s return home to Santo Domingo to visit her family–her aging father is ailing–and to come to terms with the traumatic experience in 1961 that sent her into exile.

Urania has been stranged from her father, a senator who committed a most despicable act when Urania was an adolescent in order to gain favor with the notoriously womanizing dictator who even bed the wives of his closest collaborators to test their loyalty. Despite Senator Cabral’s devotion to the ruler, he still falls from grace, a turn of events the old man has never understood. Three decades later, he is still tormented by thoughts of whether the dictator disdained him, as he did with others, to verify his loyalty, or whether there was a lapse in the senator’s part. In the novel’s final pages, as Senator Cabral’s sacrificial deed is revealed in dramatic detail, readers encounter the full force the dictator’s moral depravity and the devastating effects it had on the lives of the Dominican people.

Considered one of Latin America’s pre-eminent writers, Vargas Llosa is the author of the widely acclaimed novels Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. After running unsuccessfully for Peru’s presidency against Alberto Fujimori in 1990, he penned the memoir A Fish in the Water. In 1995, Vargas Llosa was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the most distinguished literary honor in Spanish letters.

The Feast was first published in Spanish by Alfaguara in 2000 and has been deftly translated by Edith Grossman. Although the novel is based on real events and real people, many details are fictional.

Vargas Llosa’s strongest show of mastery comes in his characterization of Trujillo, who is portrayed as a classic self-absorbed Narcissist who tries to justify his most despicable behavior. Vargas Llosa’s depiction of Trujillo at times casts him as a pathetic human being, especially in the ending scene with Urania, but it is difficult to feel any shred of sympathy for such a monster. Still, as repulsive as the man and his deeds are, in the hands of the talented Vargas Llosa, reading about his life is nothing short of a literary feast.

But the author’s interest in the topic was sparked back in 1975 when he spent eight months in the Dominican Republic while shooting a movie based on one of his novels. He began collecting details about the times, the rise and fall of the dictator, and the lives of both ordinary people and rotagonists, such as the conspirators who killed the dictator., a controversial technique that sparked criticism in the Dominican Republic when the novel was first issued. His fictional take on information contained in a historical account of Trujillo’s assassination, The Death of the Goat by Miami-based foreign correspondent Bernard Diedrich, also prompted accusations of plagiarism by the journalist that Vargas Llosa has vehemently rejected as "untrue and absurd."

None of the controversy, however, takes away from the mastery of Vargas Llosa’s storytelling. He effortlessly shifts viewpoints, each segment adding another thick, multi-faceted layer to the tale. The voices of the conspirators, for example, not only add plot to the story but complexity of characterization. It isn’t until some them, former supporters of Trujillo, suffer devastating losses themselves that they begin to turn against a leader whose rule has taken quite a toll on an entire country.

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