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the complete review - fiction
The Feast of the Goat
Mario Vargas Llosa
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- Spanish title: La fiesta del Chivo
- Translated by Edith Grossman
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B+ : vivid portrait of the Trujillo dictatorship
See our review for fuller assessment.
|London Rev. of Books
|The LA Times
|Madison Smartt Bell
|Neue Zürcher Zeitung
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|Rev. of Contemp. Fiction
|San Francisco Chronicle
|The Washington Post
|World Lit. Today
Almost all impressed -- an important, solid work
From the Reviews:
- "The book is a tour de force, possibly Vargas Llosa's best, not only for the profundity of his observations but also because of the craft and skill he brings to writing. He moves with grace from one point of view to another, cascading through the decades, now unpacking memories, now slipping into real time." - Olga Lorenzo, The Age
- "(T)he book miraculously restores Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to literary-master status. (...) It has been twenty years since Vargas Llosa came up with a novel this vivid and thrilling. No review can do justice to the abundant details and intrigues, the relentless pace yet utter translucency of The Feast of the Goat, much of which is historically true. (...) The book is nicely translated by Edith Grossman, although the dialogue portions could be more oral and colloquial" - Gene H. Bell-Villada, Commonweal
- "The stories of the individual conspirators are not always easy to follow or to keep separate (...) and the overall plot of the novel holds few surprises. None the less, it makes compelling and often anxious reading, partly because you keep hoping that things are not going to be as bad as they could be. Almost inevitably, they are." - Phil Baker, Daily Telegraph
- "Most of the characters are taken from life, and Mr Vargas Llosa has captured the dictator and his supporters so well that the book has caused scandal and embarrassment in Santo Domingo. Although he is not a fine stylist, few writers can match Mr Vargas Llosa for storytelling. His words serve the unfolding plot." - The Economist
- "The Feast of the Goat, with its blend of documentary sources and invention, is a fine addition to that well-worn genre, the Latin American "dictator novel"." - Ian Thomson, Evening Standard
- "La Fête au bouc est une radiographie impitoyable de la folie totalitaire, une sorte de Loft du fascisme pur et dur: 600 pages qui, en direct, plongent dans l'intimité d'un despote et de sa junte sanguinaire. Terrifiant." - André Clavel, L'Express
- "This is an ambitious novel, as sure-footed as it is graphic in integrating the private aspects of daily life in the Trujillo years with the public, or hypothetical motives with real events. Of all the Spanish American novelists I've read, Vargas Llosa is far and away the most convinced and accomplished realist; and he's at his strongest in The Feast of the Goat." - John Sturrock, The Guardian
- "(H)is Trujillo is not some Rabelesian monster, some demi-god of brutality sprung fully-blown from the Latin American psyche, but a human grown monstrous with the accumulation of power and its brutal applications. It is in this critical difference that Vargas Llosa's psychological astuteness reveals itself – as well as in the depiction of how terror, once unleashed, slithers through the body politic gradually to eviscerate all its members." - Lisa Appignanesi, The Independent
- "There is a tidy novelistic completeness to this story, and I don't mean to diminish its horror or the firmness with which Vargas Llosa goes through with the telling of it. But it's hard, in a historical novel, to think of fictional characters as suffering in quite the same way as the historical ones do, and for me the real triumph of this book lies in its study of two people: José René Román (...) and Joaquín Balaguer" - Michael Wood, London Review of Books
- "Still, laborious as it seems in the beginning, this difficult structure pays off extremely well in the second half of the book (.....) What we are brought to see at the end of this novel is the ultimate horror of the Trujillo regime: Not so much that he raped people's daughters but that his power was so total and pervasive that he could get people to cooperate, voluntarily, in the raping of their own daughters." - Madison Smartt Bell, The Los Angeles Times
- "L'écrivain n'a donc pas mis en place une île fictive, peuplée de personnages métaphoriques. Il a reconstitué, avec une crédibilité saisissante, l'atmosphère pourrie de cette époque en appelant les gens par leurs noms, quel que soit leur rôle dans l'Histoire. Et aussi, brassant le réel et l'imaginaire, en introduisant des personnages inventés" - Raphaëlle Rérolle, Le Monde
- "So liegt denn hier vieles im Argen. Vargas Llosa, scheint es, hat sich durch die Attraktivität des Stoffes blenden lassen und vergessen, dass gerade die klaffendsten Abgründe des Menschlichen literarisch nach mehr verlangen als nachgehobener Routine." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Two mysteries intertwine and clash in the novel with the precision of Greek drama: power and freedom. In the character of Trujillo, Vargas Llosa dissects with clinical skill the anatomy as well as the psychology of power. (...) In this masterful novel, splendidly translated, as always, by Edith Grossman, Vargas Llosa describes in detail the procedures of manipulation, the varieties of censorship, and the subtle gradations in the exercise of power, from the subtle insinuation that an individual has fallen out of favor to the most brutal tortures and killings. In the end, the greatest mystery lies in the voluntary, hypnotic collaboration of the masses with a single man" - Enrique Krauze, New Republic
- "This is an impressively crafted novel, teeming with characters and Vargas Llosa's trademark style, but the switches between present and past, sometimes in alternate sentences, can be confusing. The scenes of degradation have a voyeuristic appeal. (...) Even if this is not a great novel, Vargas Llosa is still a great storyteller." - Sebastian Shakespeare, New Statesman
- "(A) fierce, edgy and enthralling book (.....) In leaving the reader with a visceral understanding of the Trujillo regime and its bloody legacy, Mr. Vargas Llosa has pushed the boundaries of the traditional historical novel, and in doing so has written a book of harrowing power and lasting emotional resonance." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "Talky, introverted and atmospheric, with lots of meditation and self-analysis, the Urania sections seem to be on loan from another sort of book. (...) In this crackling translationby Edith Grossman, Vargas Llosa's Trujillo is a riveting creation -- a corked volcano of vulgar, self-pitying rage" - Walter Kirn, The New York Times Book Review
- "The complex orbital structure, the relentless savagery, the psychotic grotesquerie -- The Feast of the Goat is as dark and complicated as a Jacobean revenge tragedy; but it is also rich and humane." - Jonathan Heawood, The Observer
- "(A) visceral lesson in the complex synergy of political intrigue, sex, machismo, and history, doing a lot to explain the cycle of revolutions and economic dreams unfulfilled that seems to characterize much of Latin America, not just the Dominican Republic." - Steve Tomasula, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- "Never has a novel drawn the malignant political potential of crude, unfettered masculinity more ferociously. (...) The structure, set up to deliver great globs of exposition, is a bit clunky, and the book isn't helped by Edith Grossman's wooden and often inept translation, but once the action starts, it reaches a breakneck momentum." - Laura Miller, Salon
- "(T)he book is no hysterically correct political polemic. (...) Because of the temporal and narrative shifts, you might worry that the novel is a bit overly complicated. It's not that way at all, because Vargas Llosa (...) is a master of the intricate and complex relation of the far past to the near past and immediate present." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
- "This ugly, mesmerising, masterly novel is as steeped in facts as Macbeth was in blood. Nothing could be further from the popular idea of the South American novel, and nothing could be a more remarkable demonstration of its strengths, obsessions and direction. (...) It is a splendid novel, imbued with a passionately driving commitment." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator
- "But for a narrative brimming with horrors, the novel as a whole is oddly inert. It reads more like a history of the Dominican Republic than a fully achieved work of fiction. (...) This could have been -- and was obviously intended to be -- a major work. It does not read like one." - David Robson, Sunday Telegraph
- "It is a very fine novel, probably the most carefully designed piece of fiction he has written: the literary architecture in this case required the scaffolding of history." - Tariq Ali. The Times
- "Vargas Llosa's, Trujillo, is larger than life: Vargas Llosa does not have to draw on the worn-out exaggerations of magical realism to depict him. La fiesta del chivo is effective because its horrific subject is treated with deadpan simplicity. (...) I believe that La fiesta del chivo will stand out as the great emblematic novel of Latin America's twentieth century." - David Gallagher, Times Literary Supplement
- "The broad canvas, the political and military themes, the fast-moving narrative often enfolding different time-frames within a single scene, all conspire to make it fulfil the Spanish-speaking public's image of a Vargas Llosa novel more thoroughly than any of his other recent works." - Stephen Henighan, Times Literary Supplement
- "Meticulously researched -- so at least it certainly seems -- and filled with telling detail, it portrays the inner workings of the Trujillo regime and its opposition with what gives every appearance of verisimilitude and authority. (...) When Vargas Llosa turns to the story of Urania Cabral, the book is less successful; it feels tacked on, less an integral part of this very large tapestry than an afterthought. Yet when this small part of the tale reaches its own climax, the effect is shocking even if the actual event is wholly unsurprising." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
- "(W)eit mehr als nur ein interessanter historischer Roman. (...) Das Buch liest sich (...) spannend wie ein Kriminalroman. Mario Vargas Llosa gelingt es, in unendlichen, facettenreichen Einzelgeschichten die Historie ins Leben zurück zu holen." - Lothar Schmidt-Mühlisch, Die Welt
- "(A) blockbuster work, which has already received well-deserved acclaim as one of Vargas Llosa's four best novels" - Seymour Mentors, World Literature Today
- "Im Fest des Ziegenbocks ist Vargas Llosa ausschließlich sein eigener Kunstschreiber. Es ist, als habe der Basiliskenblick Trujillos den epischen Realisten Vargas Llosa, der er mit großer Kunst zu sein vermag, diesmal zum Verstummen gebracht." - Martin Mosebach, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Feast of the Goat is a novel, but it centers around the real-life figure of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who (mis)ruled the Dominican Republic for over three decades before being assassinated in 1961.
The novel has three main strands.
One focusses on Urania Cabral, daughter of a Trujillo loyalist and onetime important political figure, who returns to the Dominican Republic for the first time since she left it over thirty years earlier, just before Trujillo was killed.
A second focusses on the conspirators who plan and then carry out the murder of the despot, focussing on the actual assassination, and then the consequences of it.
Finally, there is Trujillo himself, as scenes from the end of his regime are recounted.
The novel moves back and forth between these strands, and along with them are vignettes and reminiscences of earlier and other times as well.
Urania's story frames the book: the novel begins with her arrival in Santo Domingo (which was still Ciudad Trujillo when she left), and ends with her departure.
She left when she was a schoolgirl, just fourteen when she was sent off to a school in America.
She went on to attend Harvard Law School, and became a successful lawyer.
But she hasn't revisited her native country -- or her ailing father -- in the decades since.
Her story, and that of her father, are slowly revealed.
On her return to the Dominican Republic Urania visits her father, but he is now old and sickly.
He can't speak, and it is unclear whether he can even understand what she says to him.
A once important politician, long close to Trujillo, he fell out of favour during the final weeks of the regime.
Urania still condemns him for his loyalty to the dictator -- with good reason.
Senator Agustín Cabral's devotion to the despot was deep indeed.
Only slowly does the reader discover how deep -- as well as why and how Urania left the country.
Cabral's betrayal -- though almost unthinkable -- finally comes as no great surprise in this country where, as Vargas Llosa demonstrates over the four hundred pages of his novel, almost everyone was completely compromised.
Vargas Llosa also recounts his version of the 1961 assassination, focussing on those involved, and why they chose to take these steps.
The murder itself comes about halfway through the book, but it is not the end of Trujillism -- a fact also reinforced by Vargas Llosa by his still shifting back to scenes of the living Trujillo.
The Feast of the Goat is a book messy in chronology, jumping back and forth and all around in time.
It is a historical novel, and so the main events can't (or shouldn't be) unfamiliar: readers know that the assassination attempt on Trujillo will succeed, and they know what followed these events.
Most of the action in the novel is centered around 1961 -- even Urania's reminiscences.
Some is set in the present, to show presumably how little has changed and how people remember the past (Urania finds quite some Trujillo-nostalgia and whitewashing lingering even more than thirty years later).
Surprisingly little is set in the past -- a few accounts of earlier times (including the horrific slaughter of Haitians in 1937 -- recounted as dinner-table story), but essentially nothing describing how the ridiculous little man Trujillo came and, at least in the early years, held onto power.
Vargas Llosa's novel is an indictment of Dominican complicity.
He shows -- and says outright -- that many of the citizens were themselves at fault, fawning over the dictator, doing anything to please him, never standing up to even his most outrageous actions.
Agustín Cabral is, by the end, the poster boy of those who are blind to the harm Trujillo caused (all the more so because he is presented as a rational, civilized soul -- nicknamed "Egghead"), but everybody went along with Trujillo's inanities and insanities.
Subtlety is not one of Vargas Llosa's strengths, and he makes no effort at it in this novel.
The facts, perhaps, almost preclude it: even among Latin America's notoriously bad leaders Trujillo ranks among the worst.
He even managed to get the United States -- who put up with (and even fostered) a lot of bad behaviour in Latin and South America -- and the OAS to impose sanctions on the Dominican Republic by 1961 (without even flirting with the Soviets).
Few regimes were as corrupt as his -- but Vargas Llosa thinks the blame must also be shared with the many, many that put up with it and helped prop up the regime.
Vargas Llosa handles much of the material well.
The scenes with Trujillo -- decrepit, incontinent, capricious, evil -- are well done.
Only his background is inadequately addressed, as if Vargas Llosa could not conceive how such a monster could come into being, and come to control a whole nation.
Trujillo's corrupt family is also well-handled, as are many of the politicians around Trujillo (notably President Joaquín Balaguer, whose role shifts dramatically with Trujillo's death).
The characters Vargas Llosa invents are less impressive: Urania, unsure of what she is doing back in Santo Domingo, exists only for the purpose of having been horribly betrayed by her father (just as the people of the Dominican Republic were by ... the people of the Dominican Republic).
The way in which she presents her story also seems far too artificial -- at best a not-so-neat novelistic construct.
Some of the stories around the assassins are quite good, but also not as fully convincing as the ones around the politicians.
Vargas Llosa can and does revel in outrage: the Trujillo (and the post-Trujillo regime) committed any number of heinous acts and Vargas Llosa describes many of these.
Most involve the corruption and abuse of the people, but there is also some indiscriminate slaughter (especially the Haitian episode) and then a great deal of torture (particularly vividly described).
As a novel The Feast of the Goat is uneven.
There are many striking episodes and occurrences, some well-presented characters (Trujillo, in particular), some very well done scenes.
But much of it is also heavy-handed, and there is entirely too little background and depth.
Vargas Llosa rightly accuses many Dominicans (especially those with some sort of power and authority) of acting reprehensibly in not trying to curb Trujillo's power, but he does a poor job of explaining -- or even wondering -- what led them to servilely and docilely follow and support their awful leader.
Historical fiction is a difficult genre.
Curiously, in The Feast of the Goat Vargas Llosa does the factual parts very well; it is the fiction that falls a bit short, with the invented characters two dimensional compared to the historical figures he also incorporates.
Even Urania's tragic story, symbolic for the destruction of the will of a country (with effects that linger to the present day), is so drawn out (with the dénouement only in the closing pages of the book) and by then so expected that it is dangerously close to becoming farce.
Vargas Llosa's indictment of those that supported Trujillo is a bit too blunt and simplistic.
Of course, they were wrong and their actions contemptible.
Just as the Germans under Hitler can be condemned.
Or the Soviets under Stalin.
Or many in the many countries of the contemporary world living under regimes that are an affront to humanity.
Perhaps Vargas Llosa is correct in not even bothering to wonder much why people put up with and even support these regimes, but it seems a question that does need to be asked in a book like this.
Lively, fast (if occasionally confusedly) paced, horrific, with some striking scenes, The Feast of the Goat is a good if not entirely satisfying read.
A bit more craftsmanship (or editorial assistance) would have helped, but even as is it is a memorable book suggesting how a whole nation can be corrupted.
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The Feast of the Goat:
Mario Vargas Llosa:
Other works by Mario Vargas Llosa under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.
He has written many works of fiction and non-fiction, and has run for the Presidency of Peru.
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