The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 416 pages. $25. BUY NOW


The Feast of the Goat, nearly documentary in tone, is a dense, dramatic, at times almost unbearably cruel and relentless political novel. It belongs to the illustrious tradition of the Latin Americanñdictator novel, in this case the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. But it is also a culmination of two searches that have characterized Vargas Llosa's writing since the beginning of his career: for what he has referred to as the "total novel"; and also for a Flaubertian perfection, a perfect fusion of style, form, and subject. A few years ago, in an essay on Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer, Vargas Llosa reflected on this idea of a "total" novel: "This is a desire to extend itself, to grow and multiply through descriptions, characters and incidents in order to exhaust all the possibilities, to represent its world on the largest, and also the most minute scale, at all levels and from all angles." Among the great works he lists that have achieved this is, of course, Madame Bovary. The "total" and Flaubertian idea, the "utopian design," is to create a novelistic reality so autonomous and whole that the reader feels convinced that this illusory reality is as true and durable as the reality it purports to describe, perhaps even more so.

The Feast of the Goat is constructed around three alternating narrative lines, historically anchored by the last days of Rafael L. Trujillo's rule in 1961, but which move backward and forward in time, at times converging, and separating. The first chapter introduces Urania Cabral, the forty-nine-year-old, Harvard-educated daughter of an invalid former Trujillo senator. Now a loveless, workaholic New York lawyer and obsessive student of the Trujillo dictatorship, she has returned to the Dominican Republic for the first time since leaving it thirty-five years before, to confront the father, country, and past that have so traumatized and wounded her. In the second chapter, we meet the tyrant himself, Trujillo, on what, we eventually realize, will be the last day of his life. These chapters, with echoes of García Márquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, convey the inner dialogue of a great, grotesque, omnivorous ruin. The aging leader's murderous power still casts its shadow throughout his realm, but he cannot control his own prostate and lives in terror of publicly wetting his pants. We see him, as politically intuitive and ruthless as ever, fully engaged in all the machinations and self- justifications of dictatorship. His memories crawl back and forth over three decades of political murders, including the politically popular massacres of despised Haitian immigrants and workers, and three decades of a regime propped up by the United States, which now finds itself suddenly beset by enemies on all sides. But what Trujillo most obsessively returns to are his erotic ruminations, and recent sexual humiliation, for without the redemptive charge of sexual virility, his power seems to him a meaningless wasteland. The third chapter introduces a group of men staking out a city highway, waiting for the car driving Trujillo to his nightly love pad so that they can assassinate him. Each man feels harmed by Trujillo in different ways; each has made the decision that, in order to purge himself and the Dominican Republic of the humilations and corruptions of the dictatorship, Trujillo must be murdered.

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