Ok, I admit it: I’m jumping the Nobel Prize bandwagon here! But in my defence, let it be known that this is the third book by Vargas Llosa I’ve sunk my teeth into. The first was Historia de Mayta (1984, English: The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, German: Maytas Geschichte). I didn’t enjoy it at all, it seemed long-winded and, frankly, boring. In fact, I even gave it two opportunities, one in 2003 when I spent three months in Ecuador, and another two years ago when I thought maybe I had missed something crucial because of my poor Spanish skills back then. The second one was Lituma en los Andes (1993, English: Death in the Andes, German: Tod in den Anden), which I enjoyed a lot.
So reading La Fiesta del Chivo wasn’t just shameless Nobel-bandwagon jumping, but also a ridiculous attempt on to somehow tip my personal balance in favour or against Mr Vargas Llosa. I’m not sure how I came up with the idea that this was somehow necessary, but here I was. And, as so often happens with these things, I discovered that the world is neither black nor white.
La Fiesta del Chivo is a very complex fabric of several interwoven stories related to the final months of the rule of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, ruthless dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. The first story is entirely fictional: Urania Cabral, a Dominican who emigrated to the US just before the end of the dictatorship to become a successful lawyer, returns after many years to visit her estranged and by now incapacitated father. He had been a loyal servant to Trujillo, but for no reason other than the caprice of El Chivo (one of Trujillo’s many nicknames) fell from grace. Bit by bit, we learn how Urania came to flee her country as a young girl and how her story is connected with that of Trujillo.
The second story is that of Trujillo himself, losely based on historical facts, but of course entirely fictional regarding the intricacies of Trujillo’s personal life and thoughts. Vargas Llosa portrays him as an aging control freak with prostate issues and the absurd idea that he alone was responsible for the well-being of his country and that all means were justified in achieving it.
Finally, there is the story of Trujillo’s assassins (such as Antonio de la Maza and Antonio Imbert Barrera) and those who were conspiring against him and began to take over (such as the puppet President, Joaquín Balaguer). This part is probably the most historically accurate part of the novel, since it is framed the most by historical events. Although, of course, the personal thoughts and motivations of the characters remain fictional. As the novel proceeds, this strand fans out into smaller sub-strands of each character’s own story.
La Fiesta del Chivo is great at creating tension and suspense and keeping it up throughout the novel using the most exciting cliffhangers. It’s excellent at describing the sense of oppression and the continuous fear Dominicans lived in under Trujillo’s rule. And it masterfully weaves together the three narrative strands, quite becoming of a guy walking around with a Nobel Prize for Literature in his pocket by now.
However, and it has to be said, the novel suffers to some extent from what I like to call the ‘Lord of the Rings syndrome’ (because it’s just excessive there): if you open up lots of narrative strands, at one point you’re faced with the problem of having to close each one of them in order to bring your story to a satisfying end. I think that’s exactly what happens in about the last third of La Fiesta del Chivo. Vargas Llosa not only has to bring to an end the story of Urania Cabral, but also those of all the conspirers and Balaguer (that of Trujillo himself has already ended with his assassination earlier on in the book). And that’s where La Fiesta del Chivo can become a bit tedious at times.
There are other issues that might sit uncomfortably with the reader. Balaguer’s character, for example, remains just as enigmatic in the novel as he seems to have been in real life. Was he ever an ardent admirer of Trujillo or always just an opportunist (I’m inclined towards the latter, seeing how his career developed later on)? Is Vargas Llosa therefore too uncritical with him?
On the whole, though, La Fiesta del Chivo is a piece of Latin American (or rather, Caribbean) contemporary history for everyone. While other novels by Vargas Llosa, such as the aforementioned Historia de Mayta and Death in the Andes, can only unfold their whole potential if you know about or are at least prepared to further investigate the intricacies of Peru’s recent political history, La Fiesta del Chivo doesn’t require such a feat.
I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good point of access to Vargas Llosa’s extensive bibliography, as it’s certainly one of his most important works, and a – for the most part – very entertaining one at that.
English Title: The Feast of the Goat
German Title: Das Fest des Ziegenbocks