From 1930 to 1961, the Dominican Republic was ruled by a military strongman named Raphael Trujillo, also known as The Goat. Contradictions defined Trujillo’s rule. He established environmental protections and allowed a middle class to prosper, but eliminated personal liberties and brutally punished any dissent. He granted refuge to European Jews fleeing the Nazis, but promoted a racially-charged anti-Haitian ideology that culminated in the slaughter of thousands of Haitians. He restored Dominican pride in themselves and independence from US occupation, but oppressed them. Political opponents were killed outright or disappeared, their bodies never found, yet Trujillo was a staunch ally of the United States first against Hitler and then Communism and the D.R. was a charter member of the United Nations. Trujillo’s family in particular flourished, despite their mistakes and flaws. This period is known as the Feast of the Goat.
Llosa’s novel is an exploration of these paradoxes and memory, centered on the last year of Trujillo’s reign. The narrative consists of three distinct timelines, two from 1961 and one from 1995, with the later arc forming a frame for the overall story.
Thirty five years after Trujillo’s death, Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of The goat’s most loyal ministers, returns to the D.R. for the first time since she left as a teenager and is immediately swept back into the trauma that precipitated her exile and her excommunicating her family. Those events and thus her memories fit into the context of the other two narratives: Trujillo’s desperate bid to cling to power against internal dissent, international pressure, the incompetence of his family, and the inevitability of aging; and the assassins on the night of their coup. Llosa slowly weaves these three timelines together, bringing them closer and closer until they meet in the assassination of Trujillo, the purges that followed, and the subsequent creation of the modern Dominican state.
Like another of Llosa’s book, The War of the end of the World, the core events of The Feast of the Goat really happened and could be considered more appropriately the province of non fiction. however, Llosa is not primarily interested in causation or change or social structure. His story is much more visceral. Llosa’s tale evokes the experience of life during Trujillo’s dictatorship and the transition, examining the processes and changes on a personal, extremely limited level and thereby bypassing the events as a historian would look at them. Llosa builds on the internal contradictions of Trujillo’s D.R. through the medium of memory in order to explore the characters. Trujillo dies, but it is hard to say the story has a happy ending. Everyone suffers.
I knew nothing about Trujillo and little about the D.R. (other than baseball) when I picked up this book, but am looking forward to reading Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of Butterflies, which focuses on one of Trujillo’s particular atrocities, the assassination of the Mirabal sisters.
As I said in reviewing The War of the End of the World, Llosa is an incredible storyteller and, with Orhan Pamuk, is one of my favorite currently-living high literature authors. The added caveats are for simplicity’s sake. I am currently reading Pamuk’s The Black Book and wanted to take a moment to compare the two nobel laureates, whose subject matter and writing styles differ wildly, but whose interests in identity and memory overlap. Llosa is the easier author to love. He paints with every color of the rainbow in sharp, graphic quality every experience and image from the most grotesque suffering to the most titillating encounter to the most poignant loss. At his best, both here and in The Bad Girl, Llosa meshes all three into a single scene. The story can be understated, but the writing itself is not. Llosa’s style tends toward the straight forward and brash, drawing the reader forward with the sheer charisma of the characters. In contrast, Pamuk’s style is understated and subtle. Other than in My Name is Red, where bright colors are central to the story itself, he prefers the muted and the drab. Not shabby, but shades of gray that make colors all the more potent when they appear. His stories give the reader nothing certain, with a path to follow and the answers eternally a step into the darkness.