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Monday Book Review: The Feast of the Goat March 8, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Book Reviews.
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The Feast of the Goat (La Fiesta del Chivo) by Mario Vargos Llosa, is the fictionalized account of the last days of the Dominican Republic’s tyrannical dictator, Rafael Trujillo, in 1961. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Urania Cabral in 1996, who has returned to the Dominican after over 35 years of self-imposed exile to the United States where she has become a highly successful, though lonely and hermetic, lawyer. The story jumps repeatedly in time from the present, to the night of Trujillo’s assassination, to the days before, to the falling of the regime afterward. Though a fictionalized account of the fall of Trujillo’s regime, the names and basic actions of both Trujillo’s inner circle and his assassins are historical facts, and thus Llosa paints an important picture of the Dominican in the early 1960′s.

I had mixed feelings about this book until about halfway through. Llosa keeps you turning the pages for two reasons. First, the reader wants to know why Urania fled the Dominican and why she is so angry at her father who everyone else believes was a great man. All we are told is that he was one of Trujillo’s right-hand men who fell out of grace right before the assassination. We are also made aware that Urania fled the Dominican on a scholarship provided by local nuns and never made an attempt to communicate with any family members since. Secondly, the reader is brought to the night of Trujillo’s assassination where conspirators Antonio de la Maza and Antonio Imbert Barrera, among many others, wait tensely for “The Chief” (one of Trujillo’s many pseudonyms) to pass by in his car with the hopes to kill him. Though I was intrigued by both scenes, the digressions into politics became at times lengthy and trying to understand and keep straight the dozens of political characters that Llosa introduces really slowed the pace of the action. Once I realized that Llosa’s primary goal was to depict Trujillo’s character and myriad of moods in exhaustive detail and I stopped focusing on keeping every minor character straight, I found that I could enjoy the book a lot more.

The historical character of Rafael Trujillo has interested me every since reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, as well as In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Both are phenomenal books. The latter chronicles the lives and murders of the Mirabal sisters, Dominican dissenters in Trujillo’s time. Their murders were one of the impetuses to assassinating Trujillo and they are mentioned repeatedly in The Feast of the Goat. Llosa’s connection to true historical events was definitely one of the draws of this book. But the way he made Trujillo, such an iconic character, come to life, is even more impressive. Llosa, without seeming to manipulate you, makes you hate and fear Trujillo, and also, strangely, admire him in some ways–clearly the mixture of emotions that the Dominicans of his day felt. Llosa’s manipulation of time is also unique and laudatory, killing Trujillo in one chapter, only to revive him repeatedly by drawing on the past. Just when we think Trujillo has finally been buried, both physically and emotionally for the Dominicans, Llosa revives him once more in the climactic last scene and Urania’s confession, conveying the lesson that the most vile of offenses is usually the most personal, and explaining why she abandoned everything she knew, save, like myself, an obsession with Trujillo-era Dominican history.

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