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.)
Last 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.