This is a book that initially works on the reader slowly, incrementally. None of the characters, aside from Trujillo, seems particularly exceptional, at least at first, and that is partly the point: Vargas Llosa wants us to see how absolute power infects and saturates a society at every level, working its poison into even the purest and most well-intentioned hearts. Yet detail by detail, nuance by nuance, with the tension-building touch of the smoothest melodramatist everˇwhy does Urania so hate her father? and so onˇhe finally makes you feel breathlessly implicated in the story. Vargas Llosa is the unequaled master of (unfortunately, untranslatable) Latin American tough-guy vernacular, and sitting (reading) as we wait in the car with the young would-be assassinsˇor, in other chapters, with Trujillo's thugs and flunkiesˇwe physically experience the near-homoerotic swagger of bordello and barracks, the robust pathos of humiliated, defiant manhood.
But it is the novel's marvelous and complex formal masteryˇits "totalizing" of a "utopian design"ˇthat conquers the reader, in the way that the formal beauty of great musical composition does. Group scenes alternate with scenes of tight dramatic confrontation: Urania with her father; Trujillo with his wiliest and most treacherous political "allies." Seamlessly, the narrative shifts from past to present and back. And it opens out into the future, and into the novel's brilliant set pieces, dramatizing the manner in which the two highest placed and most secret conspirators in the plot react in the critical hours and then days following the assassination: The head of the armed forces, General Romßn, recognizes what should be done but, as if in the grips of a tragic and hypnotic dream, leads himself into an inferno by always doing the opposite; and the austere, dwarflike Balaguer, Trujillo's loyal puppet, who emerges as the canniest political operator in fiction since Count Mosca, guides the country toward "democracy" while also leading the reader with him toward the nihilistic abyss of seemingly pragmatic and corrupt accommodation. As we follow his manipulations, we find our own moral judgments so challenged that our stomachs start to ache.
The novel then glides fatally, inevitably, horribly, back into the past for the book's climactic scene, which pits a fourteen-year-old Urania against Trujillo. By then we are saturated by this novel's fictional realityˇone so convincing that we feel confused when we recall that Balaguer was a force in Dominican politics until his death just a few years ago and not merely a fictional characterˇand so well prepared for this scene that we are not particularly surprised or shocked by what happens. Like a bow against a cello, this revelatory scene plays against us, plays deep in our inmost selves, and brings something low and grieving to our lips. I can't think of a novel that better dramatizes the way political evil can reach any of us in that innermost place. The Feast of the Goat is a masterpiece of Latin American and world literature, and one of the finest political novels ever written.
Francisco Goldman is the author of the novels The Long Night of White Chickens (1992) and The Ordinary Seaman (1997), both published by Atlantic Monthly Press.