Unravelling the Great Dictator, Rafael Trujillo

In The Feast of the Goat, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa takes on Rafael Trujillo, one of the Caribbean’s most notorious dictators. James Ferguson explains why this novel, published in 2000, has already become a classic

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There’s a good story told by the American journalist William Krehm, who visited the Dominican Republic in the 1940s. That was the heyday of the Great Dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who had seized power in 1930. Krehm visited a particularly fine ranch one day and admired a prize bull. Whose was it? he asked the farmhand. The boy looked puzzled at such an obvious question: “Es del Jefe” (It’s the Chief’s), he replied. The Chief, of course, being Trujillo.

Trujillo owned almost everything in the Dominican Republic during his 31-year reign. His rapacious family had a stake in the various ranches, plantations, hotels and factories, but in essence the country belonged to the Chief. If you were lucky and he liked your farm or home, he might reimburse you. If you were less fortunate, he’d simply take it and throw you into jail or to the sharks that gathered at his special seaside sites for the purpose of “disappearing” opponents.

His greed was amply matched by his vanity — and by his libido. He liked to be known as The Benefactor or Liberator; statues and portraits were to be found in every corner of the country. He modestly agreed to allow the capital Santo Domingo to be renamed Ciudad Trujillo, and the highest mountain to be renamed in his honour. His amorous tastes, meanwhile, varied: from the wives of his ministers and hangers-on (a test of loyalty) to young girls.

Trujillo was as close to an incarnation of evil as any 20th-century ruler. He murdered, tortured and jailed his opponents, he humiliated his political allies, he despised his subjects. He employed a legion of secret policemen and informers, determined to snuff out any sort of opposition. He had risen from being a petty cattle thief via the Dominican army to a position of absolute power. And with it came absolute corruption.

In the end he died the death he probably deserved, mown down by a group of conspirators as he was being driven one night in May 1961 to his country palace in San Cristóbal. Even then, the dictatorship lashed out. Trujillo’s assassins were hunted down, tortured and killed, as his brothers and sons, powerful political bosses in their own right, sought vengeance. It took months for the violence to stop, for elections to be held and for a precarious democracy to be introduced.

His dark chapter in Dominican history provides the material for the darkest of novels, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. Published first in Spanish in 2000, it has become an instant classic, critically acclaimed and widely read. It may indeed be too dark, and too politically detailed, for some palates, but for those interested in the nature of evil and the machinations of a truly totalitarian system it’s a compelling read.

Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian by birth and resident in London, knows something about politics and its excesses. Not only has he written about Peru’s lunatic guerrilla organisation, Sendero Luminoso, but he even stood — unsuccessfully — for the presidency of Peru in 1990. The Trujillo he depicts is, of course, a monster: vain, scheming, cruel and lecherous. But curiously he is also vulnerable, almost pitiable, as he confronts his old age and the humiliating fact that an enlarged prostate gland is making him not only impotent but incontinent. What greater disaster, after all, could befall the epitome of machismo, the man who incarnates manliness and discipline?

Parallel to the ailing dictator’s problems runs the conspiracy to murder him. Here Vargas Llosa introduces us to a tight-knit group of Dominicans, all from the upper echelons of society and all with a burning hatred of the Chief. As they wait on the road to San Cristóbal for Trujillo’s car to appear, they relive their sufferings and humiliations at the hands of the dictator.

A further narrative layer revolves around the return to Santo Domingo many years later of Urania Cabral, the by-now middle-aged daughter of one of Trujillo’s former ministers, Agustín Cabral. She has not visited her native country for decades, and we are curious as to why she should now reappear to see her old and paralysed father. Only at the very end of the 400-page novel do we come to understand that the desperate politician, who had somehow fallen out with Trujillo, had sent his 14-year-old daughter as a perverted peace offering to the man who, for obvious reasons, was known as the Goat.

All these story lines finally converge around the last days of Trujillo and the bloody aftermath of his assassination. What Vargas Llosa reveals in the process is not merely an aging individual, terrified that he is losing his physical, and by extension political, power, but the death throes of a totalitarian state. He shows how Trujillo’s enemies — the Church, the American Embassy, and elements within the army — are queuing up to rid the country of a megalomaniac they once supported. Their fear, of course, is that continued dictatorship will lead to “another Cuba”, as Castro has recently seized power from the dictator Batista in Havana.

This study of political intrigue goes beyond Trujillo and his sinister secret police chief, Johnny Abbes, a man who took a personal interest in the interrogation of suspects. It traces also the chaotic period following the Goat’s death and the emergence out of the anarchy of the supreme political operator, Joaquín Balaguer, a man who dominated Dominican politics for four decades and continued to pull the strings until his death last July, at the age of 95.

Most convincingly perhaps, the novel conveys the claustrophobic nature of life under a dictatorship, where all are forced to collude with the system or face exile or death. One of Trujillo’s assassins reflects on the all-enveloping nature of the regime as he waits for the dictator’s car:

 

With half-closed eyes, lulled by the gentle sound of the sea, he thought of what a perverse system Trujillo created, one in which all Dominicans sooner or later took part as accomplices, a system in which only exiles (not always) and the dead could escape. In this country, in one way or another, everyone had been, was, or would be part of the regime.

 

The heroism of Trujillo’s killers ended that terrible cycle of fear and collaboration, but at a terrible price to themselves.

 

As with many translations, Vargas Llosa’s writing perhaps loses some of its fluency in English; dialogue is sometimes unconvincing, and a plethora of Spanish names may occasionally baffle the English speaker. But these are minor criticisms of an ambitious and profound novel that tells us much about oppression and the thirst for freedom, fear and courage. The charismatic figure of the old dictator dominates the book, repulsive yet deeply human in his frailty, as memorable a representation of absolute power as the Latin American strongmen painted by Gabriel García Márquez or Augusto Roa Bastos. But alongside this chilling depiction of evil stands an affirmation of the sacrifices people will make in the cause of freedom. In that sense, this powerful book tells us a great deal about the worst and the best within human nature.