The Work of Courage; A Brief Look At Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat

There are seasons, in human affairs, of inward and outward revolution, when new depths seem to be broken up in the soul, when new wants are unfolded in multitudes, and a new and undefined good is thirsted for. There are periods dare, is the highest wisdom.

               William Ellery Channing


By Mari Gomez

So much of what I’ve learned a novel is capable of achieving has come from the work of Mario Vargas Llosa. Finishing a Vargas Llosa novel like Feast of the Goat, always provokes a shuddering realization of the story’s masterful delivery. His novels leave you savaged, somewhat older and wiser, both as a reader and as a student of the craft. The characters linger and occasionally emerge as an intimate memory that shape-shifts in and out of your consciousness as faint sensations. Perhaps more than anything Vargas Llosa’s novels leave you with a sense of vastness and immensity.  Yet, despite his ability for magnitude Vargas Llosa’s work is exceptionally clean, with a restrained and calculated mastery of structure, a characteristic which never limits the visceral and emotional punches of the story and its characters.  

Vargas Llosa’s novel The Feast of the Goat takes you to the Trujillo era in the Dominican Republic. The dictator Rafael Trujillo ruled the small country for over thirty years (1930-1961) and had unprecedented control over all facets of society. He eliminated enemies, he silenced dissenters or traitors, he quelled protests, he ruined officers he suspected of even a modicum of disloyalty, and he maintained a trained and brutal army under his ruthless and often capricious command. He rewarded loyalty and discipline and despised uncleanliness or a wrinkle on his officer’s uniform. 

Trujillo is a Gordian knot of a historical character; he is multifaceted, often contradictory, unpredictable, tangled.

Trujillo was finally killed on May 30th 1961, ambushed in his car while driving on a highway. A group of rebels, including some of his own cabinet, planned out the ambush. His death sparked a chaotic time in the small country. His brother, his son, and his generals retaliated with indiscriminate brutality in an attempt to avenge his death.

One of the most prominent themes in the book is personal and collective courage. The novel asks questions about dignity and self-respect and the breaking point of men. A society under the rule of a fierce dictator functions on the restrained rhythm of a ticking time bomb. As it pushes it’s citizens closer and closer to the brink, it’s only a matter of time before a revolt. Yet, for a moment, this ticking time bomb maintains a beat controlled by the state that creates the semblance peace, absolute order and control, sometimes even progress and economic stability. It keeps entire populations on the same pulse. Rebellion however, is inevitable; people will tire of the incarcerating rhythm and slowly begin to reject it.  It is ultimately courage and willingness for self-sacrifice that dismantles these kinds of regimes. 

The novel closely explores the arduous, complex, and dangerous journey towards the murder plot that would finally kill Rafael Trujillo.  The story delves into how human beings endure humiliation and degradation due to fear and how a single act of cowardice can have tremendous butterfly effect consequences. One act of cowardice is a travesty, but a thousand acts of cowardice is cataclysmic. 

 An effective dictator makes cowards of men so that men fear the rifles, the watching eye, even when it is not there.   Rafael Trujillo succeeded in infiltrating every aspect of the society, he became omnipresent, ubiquitous. When people begin to believe that their leader is more than human, fear can infiltrate to irreversible depths.  Trujillo had the capacity to co-opt the spirit and slowly stifle it. It is this, that even after his death, maintained a grip on people.

In the novel the assassination of the dictator happens halfway through. Vargas Llosa uses three angles by which to tell the story.  One perspective is the dictator himself; we enter his mind, his thought processes and desires. Trujillo reveals to the readers, his qualms, his meticulous nature, pragmatism, and ruthlessness. Then we have the story and perspectives of the various conspirators that planned out the assassination, all of them victims of Trujillo's power in various ways. The third perspective, which frames the entire book, is that of Urania Cabral, a young girl who suffered a terrible betrayal by her father.

Switching between the various perspectives takes you back and forth in time and builds an extraordinary tension that climaxes in the assassination and snowballs from there. The reader gets to understand the rage and longing for revenge that compounded in the hearts of the conspirators and everyone under Trujillo’s iron hand. This anger becomes a blood clot that prevents the flowing of life, it coagulates and thickens until it finally bursts.

There are essentially two tremendous acts of cowardice in the book. One by José René Román and the other by Agustín Cabral, Urania's father.  Cabral's actions are the center of the entire book; for it is through Urania's story that Trujillo's insidious and deeply entrenched influence is most clearly illustrated. It is in the fragile spaces of people's lives that Trujillo's reign lasted long after his death. I'll refrain from detailing that one, for fear of spoiling a central revelation of the novel. 

The conspirator’s plan was to kill the dictator, take his body to General José René Román Fernandez, (Pupo Roman) set up a provisional government recognized by the U.S and begin democratic elections. This plan fails, as it is portrayed in the novel, largely due to the cowardly acts of one man. José René Román Fernandez role in the assassination plot was to assume momentary power, but he lost the battle to fear. He failed to act as he should in order to carry out the plan successfully, ensure that there be a transition of power, and to aid the conspirators he was working with. Trujillo had recently been internationally reprehended and lost much of his support for his involvement in an assassination attempt towards the Venezuelan president Romulo Betancourt. The CIA provided weapons and ammunition to the rebellion and would only step in officially once there was a Democratic process in place. This did not happen in great part because Jose Rene Roman was overtaken by a paralysis, a weakness of spirit inexplicable even to him. 

The General José René Román thinks to himself:

“He never allowed anyone to treat him with disrespect. But, like so many officers, so many Dominicans, before Trujillo his valor and sense of honor disappeared, and he was overcome by a paralysis of his reason and his muscles, by servile obedience and reverence. He often had asked himself why the mere presence of the Chief-his high-pitched voice and the fixity of his gaze-annihilated him morally.” (309)

Trujillo obliterated the personal dignity and subdued men to loyalty like mistreated and hungry dogs. Pupo Roman, as he was known, acted as a coward. This not only ensured his own torturous demise a few months later at the hands of Johnny Abbes,  but it also exacerbated the violent and bloody aftermath following Trujillo’s death and ensured that all other conspirators, with the exception of one, and many innocent Dominicans would be violently killed. 

He thinks:

“But, though he knew with certainty what he ought to do and say at that moment, he didn’t do that either.” (316)

The General was aware of his inability to do what he needed to do. He fell into a half-awake stupor, as if in a dream and allow the fate of many, including his brother, to slip into chaos and death. 

“From that moment on, he was in a somnambulistic state. Time was eclipsed, or, rather, instead of moving forward it spun around in a monomaniacal repetition that depressed and infuriated him. ..Incapable of making sense of his actions, he fell into contradictions and erratic initiatives.” (318)

Roman has several opportunities to redeem the situation and save the plot; he tells himself again and again just what he should do, but his body does not follow. He continues as if he knew nothing of the conspiracy, betrays the rebels, and reverts to autopilot. The actions of the General make absolutely no sense, but they can be justified as having been a shocked response to pressure.  A lingering aftermath of fear and a subservient spirit.  He never, in fact, understands why he ran away from his responsibility. The reader is left to ponder this question.
 Courage takes work and sacrifice, it is for the most part uncomfortable. Cowardice is dangerous. It's not just reprehensible, it causes real damage, even on a small scale.  The story of these characters illustrates just how damaging one act of cowardice can become for not just the person who commits the act but to those around them. It can ripple through generations. 

After he fails to fulfill his duty to the conspiracy General Pupo Roman, the coward in our story, experiences a separation of self. He can only see himself acting, though he has no real control over what he does or why he does it. The betrayal of his own sense of duty and what is right, killed him before the infamous Johnny Abbes sewed his eye lids shut and fed him his testicles.  

Right after his first failure Roman thinks: 

“He saw himself immediately after that, in his parade uniform, the inseparable M-1 submachine gun in his hand, in the crowded church in San Cristobal, attending the funeral rites for the Chief.” (326)

After being stripped of every last layer of dignity from years of working under Trujillo, he could not bring himself to finish the job, to do what was needed, to stand up for himself. He describes his sense of time as a “jumbled stew,” where morning and night blended together because there was no purpose. Therefore, no reason to wake up, no reason to fall asleep. 

This separation of self happens slowly, through years of allowing small acts of indignity and injustice to be done. This is a key idea in the book, the bifurcation of the soul: one part knows what is right and the other is overtaken by fear of the consequences. 

“In the sudden attacks of lucidity that reminded him he was alive, that it hadn’t ended, he tortured himself with the same questions: why, knowing that this was waiting for you, why didn’t you act as you should have?” (318)

It is this kind of separation of the self that allows others to do the thinking for us.  It is ripe territory for power to sweep in and make sheep of men.  It was Rafael’s Trujillo’s ability to snatch away the dignity of his subordinates that made him all powerful, even in death. For the worst punishment in life is not death; the worst punishment is dying on your knees.

Trujillo had a saying, “God in the sky, Trujillo on the Earth.” 

The General Pupo Roman’s fate ends with his violent physical torture and death. One doesn’t feel sorry for him when he dies. He was first and foremost a victim of his own cowardice. Yet, human beings have limits and one can sympathize to some degree with his fear and paralysis. Yet, the question remains: how did Trujillo destroy so many youthful and virile spirits of men in his country? How does one person remove the liberty of another?

Trujillo used torture throughout his reign as a form of intimidation, but his most effective weapon was how he would calmly and meticulously tap into human being’s vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty. He etched himself into their deepest fears and established himself as savior there. He made people BELIEVE that he was indestructible.  Beneath his cold demeanor there was a real deep understanding of what drives human beings and what destroys them. The only weapon against this, against the abuse of power, is collective courage, it’s a consensus of morals or justice. 

Nothing is without consequence. A buckling to fear may just perpetuate fear next time; it will make it more difficult to overcome, you will become accustomed to it. Like everything, courage too atrophies. Tyranny works in mysterious ways on the human spirit. The idea of courage is inextricably tied to our sense and our idea of liberty. True liberty takes courage and courage takes time and patience and awareness. It’s not always glorious or celebrated with fanfare, but it is always imperative. 

The novel is a portal to the past, but more so it is a door into the complex and aging human soul, where tragedy, lust, power, and folly exist together as distant stars that we gaze at with wonder and curiosity.

Was that us all those years ago? Equally afraid? 

The Feast of the Goat poses questions about the work and sacrifice of courage. The novel deconstructs human beings, how vulnerable we are and how we often accept circumstances and relinquish liberty, justice, values without a fight, for a bit of peace or stability, for safety, for self preservation, for leisure, for money,  and ultimately what is it that matters most? 

Mari GomezComment