Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Feast of the Goat - Mario Vargas Losa

Given the volatile geopolitical climate in South America, it is not surprising that a lot of writers from there have written about power and it's abuse. Losa's 'The Feast of the Goat' is one of the most unforgettable novels about total power. It's part fiction, based on the reign of 'Rafael  Trujillo', dictator of Dominica and recounts the ordeals faced by the people, the abuse of power by Trujillo and his colleagues, an assassination attempt on his life and it's aftermath. Caught in the midst of all this are the innocent people, who suffer the most.
'Urania Cabral' is 49 and has been living in New York for the past 35 years in self imposed exile from Dominica and has been estranged from her father. The novel begins with her coming back to Dominica and meeting her father who is now an invalid. The novel diverges into 3 narratives at this point, one the present where Urania via a series of monologues with her father recalls the events of the past, the other is the events of a particular day of the regime in the past and the third is the  about a group of people who are waiting to assassinate Trujillo at a particular location. The narratives intersect at a point where we come to know about the reason for Urania's exile and the aftermath of the assassination attempt.
As befitting a dictator, Trujillo is a man drowning in his own hubris, but is realistic enough to know that he has failed on some accounts. His family is a disappointment. The U.S, an ally till about an year ago is plotting to remove him and his sons aren't by his side to help him in his biggest battle. The country's economy is failing. He is incontinent and having prostate problems. But he still is the lord of what he surveys and is determined to fight till the end. Amidst all this, Losa shows us a glimpse of a man who probably started with a ideal in his mind, fought for it, achieved it and ultimately became corrupted by it, resulting in the creation of a corrupt and nepotist country.This doesn't reduce the evil of Trujillo, but serves to underscore the point that even the most evil of men could start off wanting something good, but somewhere along the line their path changes.

It may sound flippant, but when one considers the dictators of the world the thing that is most astonishing is not their capacity to dole out inhuman treatment, but rather the debasement suffered by their cronies and the general public who seem to almost revel in it. That's why Trujillo is able to humiliate a senator in a large gathering by saying that the senator's wife was the woman he had the best sex with, that's why he is able to make a general clean up a drain sewage. What makes them accept these humiliations without a murmur, have they become masochists? What drove 'Augustin Cabral' to do what he did, resulting in a living hell for himself and his daughter. What is that intangible that makes a dictator keep an entire country under his full control and subject it to his whim's and fancies. In that sense, this novel is as much about the political cronies  as it is about Trujillo. Cronies who prostrate themselves before Trujillo, are engaged in the internal power struggles, jockeying for position and who in the heart of hearts would be ready to sell Trujillo, the instant the winds change. Is the taste of power (however small) and the prospect of money so great that one can suffer all these?

At the other end are the common people, people like Urania, the wives violated and young girls sexually abused by Trujillo and his family, people who have to prove their loyalty to the state by turning against their loved ones or at least have to suppress their anger when their loved ones are hurt by the state. These are the people who lose the most, getting nothing in return.

Losa is not sparing while detailing  the nightmarish regime. Some parts, especially the account of what happened to Urania and the aftermath of the assassination attempt are horrendous and what makes them even worse is that you cannot wish it away saying that its only fiction. The claustrophobic atmosphere prevailing over the entire country is brought our clinically, a country where you do not know when the government or rather Trujillo could turn against and ruin you based on his whims, where you are not sure that your best friend wouldn't betray you to get ahead. 

This is probably Losa's most stylistically realized novel. The intermingling of narratives and time shifts is done seamlessly and clinically with no room for confusion. It is almost visual in its presentation, one can actually see the scenes shifting from one narrative/timeline to another as in a movie. There is none of the ordered chaos of narration present in say 'The Green House' and to a lesser extent in 'The War Of the Worlds'. This is a highly controlled exhibition of  stylistic narration.

This is not just a novel on Dominica, but a global one. The events in the novel could be applied to any country in the world, rename the tyrant and characters and the novel would sit just fine in any totalitarian regime. For instance, the personality cult prevailing in that period that Losa details may seem far fetched, but it may actually be lesser compared to real life. One needs to just think on the mythification of  'kim jong il' in the past week to see how pervasive and global it is. The events happening in North Korea was the reason I revisited this novel again. This novel along with 'Aunt Julia and the Scripwriter' are the best of Losa's works and exemplify the greatness of the man who can handle completely diverse genres with equal aplomb. These are must reads in Losa's oeuvre. 

No comments:

Post a Comment