Books

Book review: The Feast of the Goat

I’d just finished reading Neuromancer and I was chatting to P about what I should read next. I wanted something a little heftier that I could really get my teeth into. He recommended The Feast of The Goat, a piece of historical fiction by Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, which is about Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, aka Trujillo, aka The Goat, aka El Jefe.

 

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The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

 

This Trujillo character was a soldier turned politician who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. His rule was a dictatorship driven by a cult of personality and the thirty years he had in power, known as the Trujillo Era is considered one of the bloodiest periods ever in the Americas.

The story follows the daughter of one of Trujillo’s right-hand men, Uranita, as she returns to the Dominican Republic as a grown woman, many years after Trujillo’s assassination. It also follows the band of men who become his assassins, as well as Trujillo himself, in his final few weeks. This sequential rotation of character viewpoints, spanning across the decades, is some of the most elegant writing I’ve ever come across. The structure is wonderful.

Unfortunately, I still can’t quite say that I enjoyed the book. The first two-thirds feel extremely slowly paced and the eventual reveals (that I won’t spoil here) seemed entirely predictable. Although it did make me want to know more about the Trujillo era it also had the effect of putting me off actively seeking it out. If someone made a good documentary, I’d watch it, but if I have to resort to Wikipedia it’s not happening.

In the final third of the book, things finally seemed to get going. As beautiful as all the previous scene-setting is, I didn’t feel like it was necessary and it was frustrating to wade through. Now that there was finally some action it all happened awfully fast. Except for the punishments of the assassins, which spanned slightly more than two chapters, were revolting, and rather laboured the point. More than once I had to stop and ask myself, “why am I reading this?” I’m still not sure I have an answer.

To be fair, some of the characters were very well written. I particularly enjoyed how Vargas Llosa got into Trujillo’s head and studied his idiosyncrasies, his mania and his hypocrisy. Surely, it can’t be easy to write from the point of view of a brutal dictator but this is done in such a way that, while I always hated Trujillo, sometimes I pitied him too. Similarly, the descriptions of some of his cronies are downright Dickensian but are more modern, more brutal and more vulgar.

Perhaps it’s just not the kind of book that you’re supposed to enjoy. Perhaps enjoying the story of the Trujillo era would be somehow wrong. Probably. Or, perhaps it’s one of those books that you get more out of when you return to it and re-read it years later. Maybe I will, just to see, but it won’t be for a fair few years yet.

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