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    Generally speaking, the quality of life improved for the average Dominican under Trujillo. Poverty
    persisted, but the economy expanded, the foreign debt disappeared, the currency remained stable,
    and the middle class expanded. Public works projects enhanced the road system and improved port
    facilities; airports and public buildings were constructed, the public education system grew, and
    illiteracy declined. These advances might well have been achieved in even greater measure under a
    responsive democratic government, but to Dominicans, who had no experience with such a
    government, the results under Trujillo were impressive. Although he never tested his personal
    popularity in a free election, some observers feel that Trujillo could have won a majority of the
    popular vote up until the final years of his dictatorship.
           -DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - A Country Study (Library of Congress)

The Feast of the Goat is a novel of the final days of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo's regime and of the corrupting effect that his brutal rule had on his closest associates.  Mario Vargas Llosa pulls no punches in showing the physical torture that Trujillo used to combat his enemies and the mind games and sexual depredations that he used to humiliate and control his "allies".  But he also makes Trujillo a compelling, though perhaps not sympathetic, figure and he extends the story long enough after Trujillo's assassination to let us see that he had created an environment in which it was possible for him to be succeeded by relatively democratic government.  In the process, he forces us to confront one of the most difficult paradoxes that we face as liberal democrats (a category in which we can include virtually all Americans) : that authoritarian rule, of the kind that Trujillo provided, though we find it repellent in many particulars, may be a vital stepping stone as underdeveloped nations progress towards modernity.

The first formulation of this idea that I'm aware of is Jeane Kirkpatrick's influential 1979 essay in Commentary, "Dictatorships and Double Standards", in which she differentiated between totalitarian governments, like communist ones, which sought to destroy every institution and vestige of traditional society in order to replace them with their own variants, as opposed to authoritarian ones, like Trujillo's, which, though they were quite repressive and even murderous, maintained traditional institutions--church, aristocracy, military, etc.--and at least paid lip service to the idea of democracy, making it easier for them to eventually evolve into one.  Today, the most effective advocate for the efficacy of such authoritarian regimes is probably Robert D. Kaplan, who makes no bones about his belief that some societies may simply not have developed sufficiently to even handle the freedoms that democracy brings with it.  I've reviewed both their books elsewhere, so I'll not replow old ground here.

We should merely note that whether intentionally or not, Mr. Vargas Llosa's novel plays out almost exactly the drama that Ms Kirkpatrick and Mr. Kaplan have described : Trujillo initially provided the stability that was necessary for the Dominican Republic to develop economically and socially, but his very success eventually made his continued rule untenable, as he lost the support of the middle class that he had created, the institutions that he had left in place (specifically the Catholic Church), and the democratic friend that he had cultivated  (the United States).  Despite a spotty record on human rights and democracy and an intervention by the American military, the Dominican Republic in subsequent years has remained relatively stable internally, has remained cooperative with the United States, and has performed better economically than most of its neighbors.  Those of us who adhere to the "realist" school of foreign policy that Kirkpatrick and Kaplan espouse would consider Trujillo's legacy, though mixed, to be more favorable than not.

The great service that Mr. Vargas Llosa provides here though is to rub our noses in the corruption, the crimes, the blood and the corpses that supporting a leader like Trujillo necessarily entails.  It may not change the final results of the equation, and it needn't, but it does compel us to tote up the human costs of this terrible moral calculus.  This is a very good thing.  More important, it is a timely thing.  We are entering a period of years where we may well have to make similar calculations in the Islamic world, where we may need to support governments (Turkey's for example) that do not conform to the strict democratic processes and human rights norms that we would like to see in an ideal world, having determined that, in the long run,  such temporarily over repressive governments will likely evolve into the types of liberal democratic systems that we favor.  This tolerance for authoritarian regimes is a sensible and justifiable policy, but we must never lose sight of the deleterious effects that they do have on their citizenry.

I've noted in the past the curious fact that there are many great anti-Communist novels, but few good ones that take on right wing dictatorship.  A legion of the greatest novelists of the 20th Century--Orwell, Koestler, Solzhenitsyn, etc.--systematically destroyed the very idea that Communist government was compatible with human liberty, or even simple decency, but there is no similar body of literature that delegitimizes the caudillo-style governance of Franco, Pinochet, and their kind (the only one I know of is Rex Warner's Aerodrome).   Further adding to this mystery, when we finally do get a good novel, this one, that masterfully dissects the evils of such an authoritarian regime it comes from Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran for President of Peru as a conservative and whose political leanings have probably kept him from receiving the Nobel prize.  Curioser and curioser...

Mind you. it's a good book, not a great one.  The plot device he uses to tell the story--a middle aged woman returns to the Dominican, recalls her father's troubling career as one of Trujillo's subordinates, and its debilitating consequences for her own life--is totally unnecessary.  She just can't compete for our attention with the much more interesting Trujillo.  Also, the final section of the book that's set in the 60s, with President Joaquin Balaguer leading the transition from Trujillo to something resembling democracy, is a bit too smoothed out, even for someone who believes in it theoretically.  It's helpful to note that Trujillo was assassinated in 1961 and it was just four years later that LBJ had to deploy American troops to put down a revolution.  The road to being a stable, functioning democracy is not without bumps.  One final caution : it is hard not to read the book as at least an oblique criticism of Alberto Fujimori, who defeated Mr. Vargas Llosa in the Peruvian presidential election, won great popularity by imposing order on the terrorism torn nation, but has since had to flee to Japan as evidence of corruption in his government has come to light.  Mr. Vargas Llosa is certainly entitled to an "I told you so" moment, and one wonders what he might have been able to achieve by attempting to govern from the Right, but without repression.  Still, Fujimori's crushing of the Shining Path guerillas was no small feat, one that the author might have had a difficult time accomplishing without some measure of brutality.

With those mild caveats though, it is still a fine novel and it couldn't come at a more welcome time.  Latin America has hardly reached the End of History, but its future appears secure and very bright, as a trading partner and geopolitical ally of the three NAFTA nations (the U. S., Canada, and Mexico).  The people of Central America, South America and the Caribbean deserve a full accounting for the crimes of past leaders, but they have, more or less, reached a point where they can look ahead and need not pick at old scabs.  Now our attention turns to the Islamic world, where it seems likely that we will want to rely on pro-Western strongmen in the Trujillo/Franco/Pinochet mold (Attaturk and the Shah would be the Islamic models).  But before we do so, it would be a good idea take a long, hard look at the methods and practices that such regimes often employ.  This book takes that look.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Latin American
Book-related and General Links:
    -Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-) (kirjasto)
    -Featured Author: Mario Vargas Llosa : With Reviews and Articles From the Archives of The New York Times
    -BOOK SITE : The Feast of the Goat (FSB Associates)
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Feast of the Goat
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Death in the Andes
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Making Waves
    -ESSAY : Global Village or ├ŁGlobal Pillage? : Why we must create a universal culture of liberty (Mario Vargas Llosa, July 2001, Reason)
    -ESSAY : Ergo Literature (Mario Vargas Llosa, Summer 2001, Georgetown Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Why Literature? : The premature obituary of the book. (Mario Vargas Llosa, 05.14.01, New Republic)
    -ESSAY : The Culture of Liberty : Cries of Western cultural hegemony are as common as they are misguided. In reality, globalization does not suffocate local cultures but rather liberates them from the
ideological conformity of nationalism. (Mario Vargas Llosa, Jan/Feb 2001, Foreign Policy)
    -ESSAY : Crossing the Moral Boundary (MARIO VARGAS LLOSA, The New York Times; January 7, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Privatizing Peru (Mario Vargas Llosa, New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : The Pinochet case (MARIO VARGAS LLOSA, El País, 10/18/99)
    -ESSAY : But Meantime, What of Castro? : World leaders tolerate and excuse the Cuban despot despite his abominable record on human rights. (Mario Vargas Llosa, Los Angeles Times,October 28, 1998)
    -ESSAY : Banishing The Myths : The stereotypes that Pinochet generated after his coup still haunt the political future of Latin America (MARIO VARGAS LLOSA, MARCH 16, 1998 , TIME)
    -ESSAY : Mexico: The Perfect Dictatorship (Mario Vargas Llosa, New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : Is Fiction the Art of Living? (Mario Vargas Llosa, October 7, 1984, NY Times)
    -LECTURE : Vargas Llosa on the Future of Liberty in Latin America (Cato Institute, November 10, 1999)
    -REVIEW : of Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman His Life and Fictions. By Suzanne Jill Levine (Mario Vargas Llosa, NY Times Book Review)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : with Mario Vargas Llosa (Diane Rehm Show, November 14, 2001, NPR)
    -INTERVIEW : Questions for Mario Vargas Llosa on Why a Dictator Isn't Necessarily a Fanatic (AMY BARRETT, November 18, 2001, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : Vargas Llosa Disparages Peru, and Vice Versa (NATHANIEL C. NASH, July 18, 1993, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : Politics Nevermore, Vargas Llosa Says, Embracing Writing (ROGER COHEN, October 22, 1990, NY Times)
    -Mario Vargas Llosa (in Spanish)
    -Mario Vargas Llosa (IPL Online Literary Criticism Collection)
    -ARCHIVES : Mario Vargas Llosa (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "mario vargas llosa" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "mario vargas llosa" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of Feast of the Goat (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Feast of the Goat (Walter Kirn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Feast of the Goat (Thomas Filbin, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of The Feast of the Goat (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Feast of the Goat (Alan Cheuse, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Feast of the Goat (FRITZ LANHAM , Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of  Feast of the Goat (Madison Smartt Bell, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of 'The Feast of the Goat' by Mario Vargas Llosa (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of A FISH IN THE WATER : A Memoir By Mario Vargas Llosa (Alan Riding, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Death in the Andes (1996) (Madison Smartt Bell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Death in the Andes (Paul Gray, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of Death in the Andes (Marie Arana-Ward, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Death in the Andes (Steven G. Kellman, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of Death in the Andes (Edward Neuert, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Making Waves (1997) (Jay Parini, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Making Waves (Edward Neuert, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Making Waves (Heather McMichael, Tucson Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (1997) (Walter Kendrick, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (William Rodarmor, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (Linda Wolfe, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto by Mario Vargas Llosa (David Robson, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (Andrew Billen, Evening Standard)
    -REVIEW : of Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (Denver Post Wire Services)
    -REVIEW : of Notebooks of Don Rigoberto ├Ł(Georgia Jones-Davis for The Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW : of In Praise of the Stepmother (1998) (Complete Review)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEWS : Vargas Llosa, Mario (Medical Humanities)
    -BOOK LIST : Smart and sexy : The author of "Fear of Flying" selects six novels for those who
believe that the brain is the most important erogenous zone. : In Praise of the Stepmother, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto by Mario Vargas Llosa (Erica Jong, Aug. 16, 1999, Salon)

THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC & TRUJILLO :
    -DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - A Country Study (Library of Congress)
    -Background Notes: Dominican Republic (US Department of State, March 1998)
    -Dominican Republic (Rose-Hulman.edu)
    -Dominican Republic News & Travel Information Service
    -ESSAY : The Dominican Republic's Haven for Jewish Refugees (Lauren Levy, Jewish Virtual Library)

PERU :
    -ESSAY : Adios, Alberto! : In the wake of a bribery scandal involving his closest aide, Peru's president calls for new elections and says he will step down. But will he keep his word? (Stephanie Boyd, Sept. 19, 2000, Salon)
    -Alberto Fujimori : A history of Peru since 1990 and biographical information on the President (Cosmopolis, June 2000)
    -ESSAY : Fujimori's controversial career (BBC, 18 September, 2000)
    -ESSAY ABSTRACT : Deconstructing Democracy:  Peru Under Alberto Fujimori
    -ESSAY : The man without a country : How Vladimiro Montesinos' old nemesis helped force the former Peruvian spy chief out of comfortable exile in Panama -- and could compel him to face trial at home. (Mark Schapiro, Nov. 7, 2000, Salon)

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