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The Feast of the Goat    by Mario Vargas LLosa order for
Feast of the Goat
by Mario Vargas LLosa
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Feast of the Goat is a potent offering. It immerses the reader in the period of history when the Dominican Republic was dominated by the vile, ageing dictator, Rafael Trujillo - called the Goat by Dominicans. The author uses multiple points of view with frequent flashbacks, to paint the country in the early sixties, a period punctuated by Trujillo's assassination. One woman's tale threads through all these different perspectives. As the novel begins, Urania Cabral is a forty-nine-year-old workaholic for the World Bank, in Manhattan. She impulsively returns to her native land to confront the frail father, with whom she has refused to communicate since she left as a fourteen-year-old child. The story is seamlessly translated from the original Spanish by Edith Grossman.

There are three main voices. The first, of course, is that of Urania. She reminisces about her childhood as a brilliant student and the beloved and protected daughter of Senator Agustin 'Egghead' Cabral, who is one of the dictator's inner circle. There is a bitter overlay to her memories and the reader wonders why she hates her father so much that when she finally sees him, she thinks 'The worst thing is that I don't feel anything.' Urania confronts her father who, feeble from a stroke, cannot speak, and she spends some time with an aunt and cousins, who press for explanations.

The author next takes his readers into the mind of Trujillo, an old goat in every sense - haunted by impotence and struggling with incontinence, but still full of poison and malice, and proud of his reputation as the 'man who never sweats'. We see his contemptuous and degrading treatment of the men around him, who fawn on every word. We also see the inner circle through Urania's own recollections, through which she has 'come to understand how so many millions of people, crushed by propaganda and lack of information, brutalized by indoctrination and isolation, deprived of free will and even curiosity by fear and the habit of servility and obsequiousness, could worship Trujillo', but still fails to comprehend 'how the best-educated Dominicans, the intellectuals of the country ... men of feeling and scruples' (as her father was) could have fallen under his domination.

Then we are introduced to the assassins, one by one, as they wait, keyed up for the kill along a stretch of deserted highway, and remember how they have arrived at this point. One of them 'thought of what a perverse system Trujillo created, one in which all Dominicans sooner or later took part as accomplices, a system which only exiles (not always) and the dead could escape.' The novel is tantalizing, moving back and forth in time, and shifting between these three main perspectives. At times it feels like Waiting For Godot. As Trujillo moves through the crucial day and looks back on events, the reader is as anxious as any of the assassins to know the outcome. Then the Goat's climax is reached and the aftermath laid out for the reader, for whom the final horrors are no more surprising than they are to the participants, inured to such events.

The Feast of the Goat is not an easy read, but it is brilliantly written and compelling. During her musings, Urania wonders if Dominicans 'had forgotten the abuses, the murders, the corruption, the spying, the isolation, the fear: horror had become myth.' Indeed, books like this must be read so that horror does not become myth.

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