Human tyranny

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One of the things that makes Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall so compelling is that she took as her subject one of English history’s greatest villains and humanized him. She complicated and enriched history’s view of Thomas Cromwell as an irredeemable thug; she gave him an inner life unrelated to the work he did; she made him, against every odd imaginable, understandable, if not likeable. (I liked him very much, but that’s incidental. Or, not incidental, just not necessary. Hilary Mantel’s perhaps greatest achievement with Wolf Hall is that she makes a complex and compelling character out of the known facts about Cromwell, most of which properly considered can only inspire revulsion.)

goatfeastLast week, I finished Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a novel about another of western history’s worst examples of depraved humanity in possession of too much political power. The subject is Rafael Trujillo, a dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic with vicious and unmitigated cruelty from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961.

Friends, Rafael Trujillo did really horrible things; some of the most horrible things I’ve ever had to contemplate; things that made me feel more actively nauseous than visiting the torture museum in Prague made me feel. Many times, I had to put down the novel and take a walk, especially at the end, after Trujillo had been assassinated but the plotters were still being “interrogated” and tortured–not for information, only for punishment.

Two things made this overwhelmingly disturbing novel one of the best I’ve read this year: Vargas Llosa’s stellar writing (available in English because of that genius of Spanish to English translation, Edith Grossman), and the large portions of the novel focusing on Trujillo’s day-to-day and inner life. I thought all of the shifting perspectives in the novel were brilliant–from the individual conspirators to one of Trujillo’s former cronies’ daughters (although this latter storyline was the least compelling to me)–but I most savoured the sections devoted to the Goat, even if I sometimes had to look away.

Vargas Llosa’s achievement here is that he humanizes a monster; he clearly had a very different notion of that verb in mind than Hilary Mantel did, however. Indeed, I realized as I was considering what to write about this novel that too often we use “humanize” to mean, simply and almost exclusively, likeable. And that’s not correct: to make essentially recognizable, is, I think what that word’s really about–it’s why, for example, Daniel Day Lewis’s Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York was so disturbing and should have won him an Oscar and didn’t.

Trujillo, as Vargas Llosa imagines him, is almost super-humanly disciplined, cagey, intuitive, ruthless, cruel, and manipulative; but he’s also childishly insecure and selfish, he is no match for the stupidities and inadequacies of his own family, he is appalled and frightened by his aging and failing body exactly the way anyone else would be, and his ability to lie to himself about his own motives and the results of his decisions couldn’t be more disconcertingly normal. There is nothing likable about him, but he’s not inhuman no matter how inhumane; the terrible, persistent fact is that Rafael Trujillo, one of the bloodiest dictators to stain the history of the Americas, was all too human.

A limited sort of human, of course. The conspirators, one whom Vargas Llosa spends a good deal of time on, are entirely human too–flawed, sometimes hypocritical, unaware of or able a little too easily to excuse their own faults; but they are not dictators, and it’s never suggested they could be. This is not to say they are more complete human beings; rather, in this complex look at the intersections of politics, power, and morality, Vargas Llosa constructs the heroes who brought the Trujillo Era to a close as brave, yes, but also lacking in some of the better human characteristics that made their dictator so successful–they’re disorganized, they trust the wrong people, they fail to make back-up plans, they allow their bigger political goals to be affected by petty spats and insecurities. People suffer for their mistakes in the very same way people suffer for Trujillo’s successes, if for shorter periods of time.

There’s no doubt the conspirators had historical and moral right on their side; everyone, including Trujillo himself, was certain that only his death could bring his rule to an end. The unease comes from the fact that what’s better and more moral and right isn’t necessarily–and maybe can’t–be ushered in by superior human beings. Indeed, integral to the Dominican Republic’s painful transition to democracy was Joaquin Balaguer, Trujillo’s enigmatic puppet president who, after the assassination, quietly mobilizes around himself almost all that dispersed power.

Vargas Llosa’s portrayal of Balaguer was thoughtfully misty; I think his understanding of the man was, perhaps, as foggy as the Goat’s (for Balaguer was one of the only people in his inner circle he seems to have been unable to read). And personally, having read a brief bio of the man, I can’t make much sense of him either. When the novel concludes, Balaguer is working hard to move his country towards democracy and peace; he did this in real life, yet he also ultimately became a powerful dictator himself–not nearly as violent as Trujillo, but a dictator nonetheless.

Or, maybe I can understand it, but such understanding doesn’t make for a very comforting conclusion: nothing could be more natural, more recognizably human, than being corrupted by power. Not that Vargas Llosa doesn’t also populate his novel with truly good people–there is the Italian consul, for example, who risks his and his wife’s lives to hide one of Trujillo’s assassins for six months; but goodness is never coupled with real access to power in this novel.

It’s not a hopeful book and it’s not an easy book, but The Feast of the Goat is brilliant and shockingly well-written and irresistible. Mario Vargas Llosa is one of a handful of contemporary writers that keeps me from disappearing entirely into the distant literary past, and I’m grateful for him.

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. Barbara says:

    Good reviews, though I am rushing to judgment on the Trujillo book as I haven’t read it. However, I did meet Edith Grossman recently in her masterly translation of Don Quixote – a book that I have been resisting all my life, and one that proved to be one of the major experiences of my many years of reading. It will be revisited again and again.

    I don’t know if you have read Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, the sequel. Cromwell, once more of course, as the forces arrayed against him begin to close in with Henry’s paranoia and the court’s hostility. C. is as clever, as daunting, as perverse, as humane, as ever, Yet we fear for him. Such is our Hilary’s power.

    I have been reading her forever it seems and never until this pair of books has she demonstrated such majestic narrative power and uncanny ability to mine motive and character.

    I do enjoy most of your reviews and often agree with your views. When I don’t agree, it is probably because of age discrepancy. I am an 85 year old and, by the way, a good friend of Janet’s, my neighbour and copain.

    1. Colleen says:

      I am actually reading Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote right now! I’m reading it in bursts and then leaving it for long periods of time, in part because I want to savour it as long as possible. It’s really, truly extraordinary. Also, funny–and really funny writing is surprisingly hard to come by.

      As for Mantel, I’ve read only two of her books: Wolf Hall and The Giant, O’Brien–both of which I thought were brilliant and written in surprisingly different styles. I’m looking forward to getting back to Mantel…I just keep distracted.

      1. Barbara Ellis says:

        I came on my own copy of Mantel’s “Fludd” at my daughter’s cottage recently. Because it was not returned – and she is scrupulous about such things – I decided I had discarded it, surely a dubious gift.
        So, I borrowed and read it. It was absolutely not a book I knew, although a few scenes made an echo or two. It is witty, funny, wise and far more than one might expect from a much younger Mantel. Give it a try sometime when the list grows shorter or the distractions wane
        But you must read “Bring Up the Bodies” first.

  2. Tony says:

    Good to see that we don’t always agree on books – I didn’t think much of this at all. I found the prose fairly bland compared to other books I’ve read recently, and it just seemed like a glorified thriller. By the time we got around to finding out just what happened to Urania, I really didn’t care much…

    Glad you enjoyed it though πŸ™‚

    1. Colleen says:

      Interesting. Two things: What’s wrong with a glorified thriller? πŸ˜‰

      Also, I didn’t think we were supposed to be surprised by what happened to Urania–the hints foreshadowing were so obvious that I couldn’t believe it was meant to be a surprise anyway; I certainly knew before I was halfway through the novel. Which made me ask, if surprise isn’t the purpose of the slow reveal of her betrayal what is? I thought it was some sort of quiet(ish), slow catharsis to complement the terrible, lurid reveal of the history of the dictatorship that everyone, included recorded history if we can anthropomorphize that for a moment, already knew. It was, I thought, also about refusing to let history become something that isn’t horrifically personal…

      Have you read anything else of Vargas Llosa’s?

      1. Tony says:

        Just not my kind of book – doesn’t interest me.

        Also, while we’re perhaps not meant to be surprised, we are meant to care, and I didn’t. I’m not big on this kind of ‘faction’ writing, so it’s unsurprising that I didn’t really like this.

        This was my first Vargas Llosa, but I do have ‘Conversation in the Cathedral’ lined up for one of my next reads (I *really* should have chosen something shorter…).

  3. Stefanie says:

    You are becoming a detriment to my TBR list! πŸ™‚

    1. Colleen says:

      Let’s say I’m enriching it instead. πŸ™‚

  4. I have vague recollections of Rafael Trujillo from Latin American Studies. I will add it to my list.

    1. Colleen says:

      I wish I had taken any classes in Latin American Studies…I think I’ll be making up for it by spending some time with the authors of the Latin American Boom.

  5. Thomas says:

    I love so many of those latin american books about dictators.
    Anyone else enjoyed Autumn of the Patriarch or I the Supreme?

    1. Colleen says:

      I read and enjoyed The Autumn of the Patriarch a long, long time ago…adding I the Supreme to my TBR pile now!

  6. Colleen says:

    Tony: fair enough. I take your point re: Urania. Even I didn’t care as much as I was meant to, and I thought the book was excellent. I’ll look forward to your review on Conversations in the Cathedral.

  7. Colleen says:

    Barbara, the distractions are unlikely to wane for the foreseeable future so I’m not sure when I’ll get to Bring Up the Bodies–I really want to be able to give it my whole attention! My next Mantel is going to be Everyday is Mother’s Day–simply because it’s very short. I wish such things didn’t need to be considering in my reading plan these days…

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