A Dominican Toss of the Coin

THE FEAST OF THE GOAT VS THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO

In view of the success of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a portion of the Latin American critical establishment has raised serious doubts about the awareness, or even willingness to be aware, displayed by the US literary academy in relation to recent developments in parallel cultures. This, of course, is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that (North) Americans are accused of being self-centered. In this particular case, the argument is that the kernel of Junot Diaz’s vastly acclaimed novel – the anecdotes that inform his text with the details of the oppression and abuse that proliferated in the Dominican Republic during the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, between 1930-1961 – had already been told in more detail, more objectively and altogether better, by Mario Vargas Llosa almost ten years earlier, in his historical novel The Feast of the Goat, published in 2000.

Vargas Llosa is an iconic figure in the world of Latin American literature. He was on the younger end, but right at the core, of the so-called Latin American Boom of the sixties, and his first three novels, The Time of the Hero (1963), The Green House (1966) and Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) were, unequivocally, extraordinary. He has been awarded every major prize in the Spanish language, from the earliest incarnation of the Rómulo Gallegos prize (The Green House, 1967), to the Principe de Asturias (1986) and the Premio Miguel de Cervates (1997). Nevertheless, his footing on the English-speaking context is infinitely less firm. This, I believe, is the issue around which this new debate really revolves.

Part of the problem stems from the need, for publicity’s sake, to outline the literature produced in Latin America in the sixties as a unitary and coherent product, which, diluted to the extreme, proposed “new ways of narrating”, which, diluted again, became equated with the most dramatic of the tools it evinced: magic realism. For the past two decades, now, the English-speaking critical establishment has developed an endemic rejection for just about anything evidencing the faintest influence from magic realism – except for a few, pin-pointed cases – which has become synonymous with “formulaic”, “staid”, “repetitive”.

But Vargas Llosa, a convicted felon in the use of magic realism, had moved far, far away from the practice by the time he embarked on his work about the assassination and legacy of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. This is not to say, however, that he had moved away from the explorations he made during the Boom. Indeed, the opening passage of The Feast of the Goat treads the dangerous line of self-plagiarism unashamedly, as the protagonist walks through the streets of Santo Domingo lost in a cascade of thoughts and memories that are meant to both guide and mislead the reader. The formula strikes as a substantially less radical version of the beginning of Conversation in the Cathedral – arguably Vargas Llosa’s most ambitious work.

However, Vargas Llosa’s priorities shifted in the thirty-odd years that passed between the completion of the two books. While the plot of Conversation in the Catheral is important, spinning a web of misery amidst the political the intrigues that characterized the dictatorship of Manuel Odría in Peru, it plays second fiddle to Vargas Llosa’s adventurous experiments in narrative form and temporal structure. The result is a powerful masterpiece that purposely creates a confusing environment where the state of mind of a highly unreliable narrator dictates the course, the tempo, the nature of a story that lives much longer in the reader’s memory for the way it is told than for what it actually tells.

Meanwhile, The Feast of the Goat displays none of the bravado that defines Conversation in the Cathedral. Instead, Vargas Llosa uses a soberer style, more mature, perhaps, certainly more conventional, to entwine the parallel stories of Urania Cabral, a Dominican émigré who returns to the country for the first time since she left it 35 years ago, and the final day of Trujillo’s life, May 30, 1961, seen both from his perspective and that of his killers. Driven, perhaps, by a compelling sense of historical scruples, or, maybe, influenced by the fiery debate that arose in 1998 and continued for much of 1999, following the arrest of Augusto Pinochet – whose 27-year dictatorial rule of Chile still today divides opinions, based on contrary arguments about liberty and progress – Vargas Llosa painstakingly researches and narrates all the major landmarks of Trujillo’s government, often twice – to get both sides of the story.

The outcome is a vast text that moves with surprising ease but that is overtly intent on depicting a complete and balanced picture of Rafael Trujillo. Yet this is unlikely to be the ride for which the average reader of The Feast of the Goat will have signed up. Vargas Llosa carefully covers every aspect of Trujillo’s personality and governance and dissects it in complex – contradictory – parcels that disallow an unequivocal verdict from the reader. Even the inhuman atrocity that is the massacre of 20,000 Haitians by Dominican troops and people in 1937 is contextualized within the bellicose history between the two nations and the, apparently widespread, paranoia of invasion felt by the Dominicans at the time.

The problem is that if I had wanted to take part in this debate I would have sought an authoritative historical account, not a work of fiction. And a historical novel is, above all, fiction. Yet the overtly fictional element of The Feast of the Goat, the thread that carries the tale of Urania Cabral, is nowhere near as compelling as the historical narrative. Caught halfway between history and fiction, The Feast of the Goat is neither. Which is not to say it is a rotund failure.

On the contrary, at times the narrative forces page after page upon the reader, and two moments in particular stand out as extraordinary accomplishments of one of the most important living writers in Western civilization. One of them happens comes with Trujillo’s murder, when one of the perpetrators is accidentally wounded by friendly fire. By previous accord, anybody badly hurt in the expedition would be immediately sacrificed by the survivors. The reader feels empathy for the fallen character, and is relieved to find out the rest of the bunch will spare his life and take him straight to the hospital, given that, without any doubt, the plot has been successful, and Trujillo was dead. Less than ten pages later the reader grasps the full extent of the tragedy, as the wounded conspirator is inhumanly tortured by the secret police. One cannot but agree that he should have been killed by his colleagues when they had the chance – and in that change of mind, the complexity of the predicament in which the Dominican Republic was mired at the time is perfectly illustrated, comprehensively mirrored.

More comprehensively, in fact, than it ever gets to be in the tale of the Cabral and De León families in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. However, to argue that Junot Díaz’s novel is presaged or contained in The Feast of the Goat and that, therefore, its success is unwarranted is, really, to misread both texts. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz proposes a different aesthetic to anything ever written by Mario Vargas Llosa – he develops a different, and rather unique, narrative voice, he experiments with the form of the text, in his use of footnotes and, critically, he incorporates genre into the narrative, creating two parallel discourses that, despite seeming contradictory, complement each other. What to Vargas Llosa is history, to Díaz is sci-fi. That is why his historical asides are tendentious and vitriolic, whereas his fictional parallels are sincerely illuminating.

Perhaps neither The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, nor The Feast of the Goat is a masterpiece of modern literature (although Díaz’s text might come closer). They both have their faults, and yet they are both a joy to read, in their highly contrasting style. But just because they are both deeply concerned with Trujillo’s dictatorship, it does not mean there is no room in literature for both, and indeed, for other new proposals, yet to come, about the subject. After all, thirty-one years in power make for a hell of a lot to tell.

 

 

 

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY MARCH 13, 2010.

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