Mario Vargas Llosa does it all: page turners, tight plots, effortlessly-readable sentences; full-bodied, fleshed out characters; global locales; exploration of the big, literary themes. Vargas Llosa pins the world beneath his pen, compelling it to stop turning just long enough for you to take it all in greedily, reading.
I've heard The Feast of the Goat
, which I have just finished, described as his best book, and although I haven't read as deeply into the Vargas Llosa oeuvre as I will, I feel confident that The Feast of the Goat
-- though captivating -- will not be my favorite. The Feast of the Goat
can be characterized as being, in some respects, a novelistic equivalent of the Red Cross report on torture in Guantanamo
: no matter how important, correct, thought-provoking, and well-written it is, you still wish it didn't exist.
But for all the horror, Vargas Llosa's insights into the human condition are compelling. One aspect of The Feast of the Goat
that particularly interested me was Vargas Llosa's depiction of the slow "deaths" people in the Dominican Republic "died" by way of having their personalities and integrity eroded and corrupted by the Trujillo regime. As Vargas Llosa writes about Antonio de la Maza, one of Trujillo's assassins, Trujillo had "killed [de la Maza] in stages, taking away his decency, his honor, his self-respect, his joy in living, his hopes and desires, turning him into a sack of bones tormented by the guilty conscience that had been destroying him gradually for so many years." (p. 90.)
Having lived for more than four years in China, I've seen people stumbling around in this state of slow death, and I've felt -- far at a distance, but still perceptible; still necessary to resist -- the pressures of an autocratic regime. My knee-jerk thought, reading Vargas Llosa's description of the slow death of Antonio de la Maza, was that de la Maza was too passive. How can Trujillo "take away his deceny, his honor, his self-respect"? I thought. De la Maza has to fight for those qualities, stand up for himself. ("Oppression . . . takes two," writes Waltern Kirn, reviewing The Feast of the Goat
for The New York Times Book Review
.) That's why we admire people with moral integrity: it's a quality that's only obtained by being tested and challenged.
But after my first impression thinking mellowed, I reflected that a "slow death" is aptly named; like it's faster counterpart, resistance is futile. The human capacity for living is a complex thing, with invisible parts and irrational aspects that can weigh as heavily as the biological. And it's surprisingly tender. Even a domestic tyrant can choke off an individual from the artery of life. Disappointments of a magnitude far smaller than the 31 vile years of the Trujillo regime can leave a person in a state of slow death, cradling a part in need of mourning, infuriated that the remainder is expected to carry on as before, though no longer whole.
Vargas Llosa's view of the slow death is severe: it's not metaphoric; what it kills is dead forever. Antonio de la Maza, already dead in all but his physical state at the book's opening, hoped that assassinating Trujillo would, in some way, resurrect him by making him worthy of living. But Vargas Llosa takes a dim view of a revenge as a restorative. De la Maza dies in a storm of bullets, and in the characters of Ramfis Trujillo and Urania Cabral, Vargas Llosa depicts vengeance as ruining its practitioners.
For de la Maza and his brethren, Vargas Llosa sees only one possibility of redemption: the dignity and nobility with which they end their physical existences. After the assassination, Ramfis Trujillo rounds up most of the assasins -- and their families -- and tortures them with an extremity of cruelty that sickens. De la Maza is already physically dead by this time in the book, but his father Don Vicente de la Maza is imprisoned and tortured. When Ramfis confronts Don Vicente with news of his son's death, Don Vicente asks only, "Did he die fighting?" When Ramfis nods, the father replies, "Thank you, Lord!" (p. 338.)
Appreciating such expert depictions of the worst extremes of human capacity is not easy. Like the Domincans who, repeatedly in The Feast of the Goat
, couldn't hold Trujillo's gaze, the impulse when confronting a feast of horrors on the scale of Trujillo's regime is to look away. Vargas Llosa's adeptness at compelling our attention is impossible not to admire.