Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

The people celebrate
and go all the way
for the Feast of the Goat
the Thirtieth of May.

—"Mataron El Chivo"
“They Killed the Goat”
A Dominican merengue

The Feast of the Goat or La Fiesta del Chivo is a fictionalized account of the Trujillo Era written by the Peruvian writer and winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa. This powerful and haunting historical fiction novel depicts the last day in the life of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina who held power over his people in the Dominican Republic between 1930 and May 30, 1961. The original book is written in Spanish, however in my opinion the translation of the book by Edith Grossman is excellent and I do not have complaints when it comes to either the language nor how the translation effected the writer's prose.

Vargas Llosa approaches the story from three different points of view:
  • The present and past memories of the fictional character Urania Cabral.
  • Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina's view of events as they unfold on the day that he was assassinated, May 30, 1961, and his memories of past events. 
  • The point of view of the Trujillo's assassins as events unfold on May 30, 1961, and their memories of the past events that motivated their actions. 
The three perspectives allow the writer to present the full scope of the history encompassing the Trujillo Era in a fast paced style that keeps the reader glued to the pages. The three points of view, which seem disparate at first, alternate and get closer to each other until they merge at the end in a cohesive manner.

Vargas Llosa uses the fictional characters of Urania, Agustin Cabral and their family to bring cohesion to the story, as Urania returns to the city of Santo Domingo after years of absence, and in turn to her memories of the past while confronting her senile and silent father with his past sins. Her memories, accusations and revelations take the reader to a time when the Dominican Republic and its people lived under the mesmerizing power of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. Vargas Llosa uses Urania as the voice representing Dominican women of her time, as she narrates experiences that are full of wonder, innocence, horror, and ultimately terrible betrayal. The betrayal experienced by Urania is a double edged sword as it comes from her father and from a society that is patriarchal in nature, killing her faith in men.

Trujillo had quite a few nicknames: el Jefe (the Chief), el Generalissimo, the Benefactor, and of course the Goat. Vargas Llosa portrays Trujillo on his last day as an old man in his 70's who is slowly losing control of his body, his allies, the country and its people. It is an intimate and personal portrayal of a man who truly believes his own press: God and Trujillo, Trujillo and God. He believes that he is savior to the Dominican people and that they owe him everything, including their properties, women, children and even their very lives. As the base of his rule there is authoritarianism and paternalism, however this is combined with violence and corruption that ends in immense abuse of power over his people, family, collaborators and enemies alike.
More than anything else, what he could not forgive was that just as he had corrupted and brutalized this country, the Goat had also corrupted and brutalized Antonio de la Maza. - Antonio de la Maza - Chapter 6
The assassins point of view is the most compelling for me in this story. Vargas Llosa portrays the last moments, the history and motives that placed Antonio de la Maza, Antonio (Tony) Imbert Barrera, Lieutenant Amadito García Guerrero, and Salvador (El Turco) Estrella Sadhalá on the San Cristóbal Highway on May 30, 1961 and made assassins out of family men and former trujillistas. Theirs are stories of men who were subjugated first through love and then through fear, and whose spirits were almost broken after years of giving of themselves to a man and a country that took it all and gave nothing in return except terror and betrayal. Their stories are moving, horrifying, and violent, and the individual motivations and the after effects of their collective actions, as portrayed by Vargas Llosa, are fascinating.
"They kill our fathers, our brothers, our friends. And now they’re killing our women. And here we sit, resigned, waiting our turn,” he heard himself say. Antonio (Tony) Imbert Barrera - Chapter 9
Vargas Llosa is known for successfully "depicting the effects of authoritarianism, violence and the abuse of power on the individual." The Feast of the Goat is an excellent example of this theme. He explores it through all three points of view, even that of Trujillo himself, as it is through him that the reader experiences how and why that power is abused and used to control collaborators and enemies alike. Previously I mentioned authoritarianism and paternalism, however Vargas Llosa goes further by portraying the Trujillo Era as a machista-run society and makes a connection between sex and power, where sex is used by Trujillo as a controlling tool to obtain and maintain his power.

Furthermore, in my opinion, where Vargas Llosa truly succeeds with The Feast of the Goat in his portrayal of the Latin American dictator and in his usage of a conversational, fast paced style that makes this historical fiction novel accessible to the reader. His inclusion of violence and torture is key and contributes to the sense of reality the reader experiences when confronted with true horror and terror. Torture and violence are not just words that are mentioned within the narration. Vargas Llosa brilliantly weaves in history and fiction to make this an excellent read.

There's so much more that I could say about The Feast of the Goat. This is a partial re-read for me, I first read it in Spanish, however this is my first attempt at reading the English translation. I would like to thank Mariana for encouraging me to re-read it in English for our book club. A note: I enjoyed this book this time around much more than the first time. Why? Well, the first time I didn't know anything about the history of the Dominican Republic and researched both history and characters as I read the book, this time I just enjoyed it. What I can tell you all is that both times the story haunted me for days after I finished it.

The Feast of the Goat (La Fiesta del Chivo) by Mario Vargas Llosa. Highly recommended.

Category: Historical Fiction
Series: None
Publisher/Release Date: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition / March 4, 2011 - Kindle Edition
First Read: B+
Grade: A

Note: I started a side blog Quotes and Thoughts that I will be using to post write ups on the books I'm reading, as I read them. Not reviews, just thoughts on specific moments in a story that catch my attention, or even to expand on a particular thread in a story while writing a review. I wrote two posts about The Feast of the Goat on that site:

Links to Quotes and Thoughts:
Sex and Power in The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
The end justifies the means... The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa


  1. Great review! It really is a very compelling book. It strikes a personal chord with me especially, since my parents are Dominican and lived in that era.

    Urania was such a haunting character...

    I'm glad you enjoyed it as much (and more) than the first time.

    Next month is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

  2. Mariana, I found the whole story haunting -- Urania, Trujillo (shudder), and the men. I've actually been thinking, discussing (with my brothers who also read it) and writing about this book for weeks. I'm so glad that you enjoyed this book, and that you found that very important connection to your roots. I really enjoyed reading the translation, which was a surprise!

    I will definitely look up Half of a Yellow Sun. Let's see if I can join you all and read it in October. :)

  3. Fantastic review Hils. I must confess to having to Google Trujillo when I read Mariana's review - this book sounds, to borrow a word from your review - haunting. I think I would like to read it one day. I don't think it will be an easy book, but I would definitely like to read it.

  4. It's an excellent historical fiction read, Orannia -- even if you don't know who Trujillo was. *g* Vargas Llosa does a fantastic job with the novel as a whole.

  5. Impressive review, Hils. I always enjoy reading about the literature and poetry you read.

    I agree that it always improves my enjoyment of an historical book--whether fiction, biography or non fiction, if I am more familiar with the time period. A little research outside the book makes a huge difference--even if it is just reading up on the topic on wiki! *blushes*

    What a great idea to have a Quotes and Thoughts blog! I'm bookmarking it! :D

  6. Hils, as always a wonderfully written review. I have been eyeing this one as a possible read for a few months now. Perhaps in the new year.

    This got my attention:

    "The three perspectives allow the writer to present the full scope of the history encompassing the Trujillo Era in a fast paced style that keeps the reader glued to the pages. The three points of view, which seem disparate at first, alternate and get closer to each other until they merge at the end in a cohesive manner."

    I just finished reading a mystery suspense in which the author employs the same technique but with at least ten characters and it worked brilliantly in keeping the suspense taut. Not a style you come across too often but when done right it adds so, so much to a story. It seems though that a good number of readers don't like this technique - I believe the term often used is "head hoping" (not sure if this is the correct term). But as a reader I have found that I enjoy multiple character perspectives in a story and when done right it makes the reading and story a much richer experience.

    Thanks for this one, I think your review may have tipped the scale toward a new year purchase.


  7. P.S. For got to mention a congratulations on your new blog Thoughts and Quotes. I've already book marked it.


  8. LOL Christine, I'm known far and wide within my circle of friends for loving research! I make copious notes when I read (no matter the theme, i.e. mythology based stories)... and I love history, so... if I read historical fiction and am not familiar with the background, it takes me forever to finish the book itself. I think that all research to inform yourself (Wiki) is a good thing. :)

    Ahhh, Quotes and Thoughts! Thanks for bookmarking it. :) Hugs.

    Indi! This a wonderful historical fiction book by an excellent writer. I think that you would enjoy it for both its historical and socio-political values. There's much of that in this story. There's really an excellent base for the study of the the Latin American dictator (or others) and how and why they manipulate populations. Llosa is politically active in Latin America and together with Garcia Marquez (whose work about the same subject I was not able to finish), has been quite successful in his endeavors.

    RE: The three POVs. There's really no head hopping in this book. The three perspectives are kept separate by chapter. So you get Urania in one chapter, Trujillo in the next, and an assassin in the next; they alternate until the end where the story lines meet. It's quite successful.

    Thanks for bookmarking Quotes and Thoughts! I hope you enjoy my ramblings. *g*

  9. Hilcia, hi!
    Your review is impressive, it got me curious to read it. I'll check my local library.

    I also visited your othet blog and I'm a follower lol
    I hope to see more thoughts soon :)
    Have a great sunday!

  10. Sonia, hello!

    Hey, didn't we discuss Vargas Llosa on the Phade once? I think we did... MVL and Saramago... yes? no? I hope you enjoy the book. I found it much more accessible to the reader than Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "The Autumn of the Patriarch" or "El Otoño del Patriarca," because the writing style and of course because it's historical fiction.

    Thanks for following my little blog. *g* It won't be too prolific... but hopefully I will have something to say there too. :)

  11. Hi, yes we did. I remember saying that I also thought MVL creates a much more "fluid" story than Márquz. I mean, I've read only one book by each of them but it was so much easier to get into MVL's book. It's about taste I guess.
    When I visit the library again, I'll look for it!
    Have a great day :)

  12. Sonia, I thought we did!

    I hope you enjoy the book. Let me know. :D

  13. This is book about human motivations and how ordinary people become hypnotized by evil. It is a universal story of the dictator everywhere and a lesson in understanding how it could happen.
    Another great one from Llosa that defies genre, it is a thriller, an historical novel, a book about politics, and offers stark, penetrating insights into human nature.

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  14. Vargas Llosa writes passionately and unsparingly in this novel about the dictatorship of Generalísimo Trujillo in the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. The excesses and back-stabbing intrigue of this time is recounted through the memory of a young woman whose father provided the intellectual backbone of the dictatorship.

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  15. This is an excellent book. Mario Vargas Llosa is a great writer. This book is about Dictator Trujillo that was in power since 1936 to about 1957 in Dominic Republic. He likes little girls and went to the nuns schools and selected the ones he wanted and the parents will send them to him.

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