|Illustration by Peter Bennett|
Looking chubbier and more rumpled than I’d ever seen him, Mario Vargas Llosa turned up on Charlie Rose last week to promote his novel, The Feast of the Goat, about the Dominican Republic during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. As usual, Charlie seemed not to have read a word of the book. Fixing his guest with those baggy Carolina eyes, he asked, “What’s the message of the novel?” The urbane Peruvian barked an unhappy laugh: “I don’t like messages, you know. A message should transpire with the story.”
If any message transpires from Vargas Llosa’s own story, it’s about the abyss that separates writing about politics from actually living them.
Only a dozen years ago, the 64-year-old novelist was best known for being one of the world’s leading writers — not so great perhaps as Gabriel García Márquez, but incomparably more interesting than, say, John Updike. Vargas Llosa had been raised on the insecure fringes of the middle class, and like most young Latin American intellectuals of his generation, he’d initially flirted with the left. This early sense of alienation inspired three marvelous books about Lima: The City and the Dogs, Conversation in the Cathedral (his masterpiece) and the sly comedy Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. But Vargas Llosa had always craved bourgeois acceptance, and as he grew more successful, he became increasingly conservative — and increasingly infected by what he calls “the disease of politics.” By 1990, at age 54, he was running for the presidency of Peru.
At first, he appeared to be the dream candidate — a handsome, cosmopolitan non-politician unsullied by decades of repression and corruption. But he ran as a Thatcherite, calling for an economic shock therapy that would throw countless people off the government payroll. Here, his ideas would have made him a perfectly plausible member of our Democratic Party; in Peru, they bound him inexorably to a cruel, selfish ruling elite. And he only made matters worse by letting himself be championed by the rich blond wives of Lima, the very embodiment of the divide between the prosperous white minority (the blancos) and the much poorer, darker-skinned cholo majority. His aristocratic style played right into the hands of his opponent, populist demagogue Alberto Fujimori, who skillfully portrayed the novelist as one of Them. Vargas Llosa — and his Savile Row suits — got trounced.
Like a public cuckold, a losing political candidate becomes a figure of fun. Time’s headline read simply, “How Mario Blew It,” and everyone I know snickered at his defeat. It smacked of poetic justice. This would teach him not to run as a Thatcherite; this would teach him not to be such a patrician aesthete, swanning off to Europe to lecture on Flaubert and then pushing austerity on his impoverished fellow countrymen. We laughed even harder when Vargas Llosa wrote a sulky Granta piece about the election that blamed (among other things) public ignorance and the knee-jerk left. The only trouble was, Fujimori turned out to be a dictator. While his economic policies proved nearly identical to Vargas Llosa’s, he closed Congress, stole maybe a billion dollars and, along with his security chief Vladimiro Montesinos, turned Peru into a police state. Democracy wasn’t restored until earlier this year.
As Al Gore could tell you, it isn’t uncommon to lose an election you should win. But Vargas Llosa’s campaign remains fascinating for what it reveals about the treacherous singularity of literary understanding. In her book Looking for History, Alma Guillermoprieto definitively dissects the paradox of Vargas Llosa’s disastrous campaign: He made mistakes that you’d never make if you’d simply read the books of . . . Mario Vargas Llosa. Although I’ve never been to Peru, his work has taught me never to put any faith in the country’s conservative businessmen, and never to side with the blonds of Lima against the cholos. But seeking the votes of his fellow citizens, Vargas Llosa evidently forgot this. Everything he knew about Peru as a writer sitting at his desk, he didn’t know when he actually traveled the country he’d written about so perceptively.
Such skewed vision is hardly unique. When the terrorists struck on September 11, people kept invoking Don DeLillo, who almost seemed to have copyrighted this kind of attack — the airliners might’ve flown straight from the pages of his books. Just look at the cover of Underworld. Few people would seem better suited to comment on the resonance of those events, yet in the current Harper’s, he offers an essay about terrorism so banal it seems to have been written by a failing academic in the Hitler Studies department he invented for White Noise. As with Vargas Llosa, citizen DeLillo is not remotely as intelligent as DeLillo the novelist. Together, they offer compelling evidence of D.H. Lawrence’s dictum: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”
Although not up to Vargas Llosa’s highest standard, The Feast of the Goat is a tale worth trusting — fictionalized history at its most cinematic. The novel offers a portrait of Trujillo’s bloody, decadent 30-year dictatorship by crosscutting between the stories of a leading politician’s daughter, a group of assassins and the aging caudillo himself (known as The Goat), who suffers from prostate problems that threaten his machismo. Backed by the U.S. for most of his reign, Trujillo is a classic strongman who loves power and loves flaunting his impunity. He sleeps with his subordinates’ wives, deflowers their daughters, saturates the whole country with fear of his disfavor. Cross him, and his hatchet man Johnny Abbes will feed you (not a metaphor) to the sharks.
Trujillo was a genuinely terrible figure, and Vargas Llosa makes you feel the implacable weight of his megalomania. Yet reading The Feast of the Goat feels oddly reassuring, almost nostalgic, for it evokes a brand of crude, materialistic evil that’s easy to understand. I can see why you might want to be so powerful that you can bed any woman you desire, build monuments to yourself or arrange the traffic to fit your own convenience. Such grandiose selfishness is comprehensible because it’s an extension of our normal, rational lives. This is a far cry from what we’re faced with in today’s theocratic terrorists whose vision of the future — equal parts Armageddon, the Middle Ages and Jonestown — suggests a disorientation of the soul verging on collective madness. (Vargas Llosa tackled such fanaticism in his gripping novel, The War of the End of the World, the extravagantly violent epic of a revolutionary utopian commune in 19th-century Brazil.)
Under the Goat, writes Vargas Llosa, the Dominican citizens were “brutalized by indoctrination and isolation, deprived of free will and even curiosity by the habit of servility.” One such quisling is a drunken senator named Henry Chirinos (a fictional character who, in a piece of authorial score settling, has been given the name of a onetime Vargas Llosa supporter who later became a Fujimori apologist). Trujillo’s private nickname for Chirinos is the Walking Turd, and he treats him with exactly that much respect. He uses him to write articles in the daily paper El Caribe that tell the public what to think.
From the relative safety of the U.S., it’s always tempting to feel superior to flunkies like Chirinos and all those who propped up Trujillo. But I was just finishing The Feast of the Goat when I was handed Newsweek’s recent “Where We Got Our Strength” cover celebrating George and Laura Bush. The story was billed as an “Exclusive,” which meant that we got to read of Laura’s “calming presence” and the president’s newfound confidence: “I believe a lot of it has to do with the prayers of the American people.” Funny, I keep praying he’ll stop saying crap like that. At a time when Bush is creating Trujillo-worthy military tribunals while urging us not to worry about losing our rights, the story is propagandistic piffle of such astonishing purity that I expected to see a byline by Henry Chirinos.
The Art Of Dying
No living writer came close to being as famous as George Harrison, who last week in L.A. died a characteristically graceful and understated death. Meanwhile the Generation Gap lived on. Although Time put Harrison on its cover, MTV barely mentioned his passing. While George Will used the occasion to bash the 1960s once again (Cokie was pissed!), the L.A. Times trotted out clichés about boomers now confronting their own mortality.
My most vivid memory of George comes from when I was a kid seeing the Beatles play at the Red Rocks in Colorado. He was famous for liking jellybeans (did he really?), and as soon as the Fab Four entered the spotlight, hysterical girls began flinging them by the handful. I was a good 75 yards from the stage, but so many candies smacked my noggin from behind that I spent the rest of the concert with my hands wrapped around the back of my head like someone under arrest. When the music and shrieking stopped, we all inched toward the exits, stepping on what seemed like a million bright, misshapen marbles. In the sudden silence, they cracked and flattened beneath our feet, a reminder that all things must pass.