The feast of the goat

(Versión en español aquí)

Historical context

Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina was the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his death in 1961. Trujillo was the generalissimo of the army and he presided over the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1938 and again from 1942 to 1952. During the rest of the time he ruled indirectly by using figurehead presidents. 

Trujillo was the chief of the National Police in 1930 when there was an insurrection against the military president Horacio Vázquez . Surely the fact that the Dominican Republic was in a crisis was a factor in this, but lately it was discovered that Trujillo was also involved in it.  There was an election after Horacio Vázquez resigned and was exiled. It is not a surprise that this election took place in a climate of terror caused by Trujillo and his paramilitary band known as “la 42” or that it was a rigged election. This is how the political life of Trujillo started: tainted with chaos, blood and manipulation. A premonition of how the following 31 years would be in the Dominican Republic.

More than fifty thousand people were killed whilst Trujillo was in power. It is worth mentioning the Parsley massacre, a mass killing against Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. It is estimated that between five and twenty-five thousand Haitians were killed then. Even though the Trujillo Era happened at the same time as many other dictatorships in Latin America, it is known as one of the bloodiest, when  human rights were constantly violated.

One of the main characteristics of the regime was its strong opposition to communism, something which gained the USA as an ally. Nevertheless, due to the brutality perpetrated by the regime, USA ended by removing their support. In a similar fashion, the Catholic church was Trujjillo´s ally at the beginning, partly because the regime promoted Catholicism as an important part of the Dominican identity. But yet again, they changed their mind due to the cruelty shown.

Trujillo´s eagerness for theatricality was another distinctive trait of the dictatorship. As an example, he gave his eleven-year-old son Ramfis the rank of General, he changed the name of the city of Santo Domingo to Trujillo City,…

About the book:

The feast of the goat is a window to the past from which Mario Vargas Llosa shows us the most intimate reality of Trujillo´s dictatorship. The story has three points of view:

  1. The first one is that of Urania Cabral, who comes back to the Dominican Republic after thirty five years living in USA without any contact with her family.
  2. The second point of view is that of Trujillo during his last day of life.
  3. The last one is the point of view of Trujillo´s assassins.

By weaving these three stories together, Mario Vargas Llosa makes a tapestry full of contrasts, allowing us to delve into the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo Era, viewing it from the perspective of different social strata. Urania will be the conducting wire of the book, as well as the main contrast with the other two stories, as she is the only woman and the only one that speaks from the future.

Even though he uses colloquial language (in particular he uses Dominican Spanish), Mario Vargas Llosa wrote the feast of the goat with supreme grace and finesse. The book is full of little details that fuse the three stories together. The non-lineal narrative and the flashbacks help us to better understand the social problems of the moment as well as the psyche of the characters.

Such a sadistic dictatorship creates a vital duality, it makes people live“[…] a public lie and a private truth that could not be expressed”. The book deals with the existential unease caused to all the characters, including Trujillo.

Analysis:

Mario Vagas Llosa spent three years researching about Trujillo’s dictatorship in order to write the feast of the goat. He then chose to combine fiction and reality to make a fierce critic to it. Nevertheless, even though the book was created within the brutality of the Trujillo Era, it deals with universal questions. As a matter of fact, it also explores the moral and ethical boundaries that people are willing to cross to obtain power, or even just to have the illusion of it.  Urania reflects about that in the following paragraph:

[..] After so many years of serving the Chief, you had lost your scruples, your sensitivity, the slightest hint of rectitude. Just like your colleagues. Just like the whole country, perhaps. Was that a requirement for staying in power and not dying of disgust? To become heartless, a Monster like your Chief [..]

One of the main themes of the book is domination, linked to virility and the male chauvinism, and Urania will be a key point on the treatment of it. She is the only female protagonist and the conducting wire of the book, which starts and finishes with her. Vargas Llosa said the following about her:

Urania is a very moving character for me. She is a character I created with the idea that the book had not only a historical perspective, but also a contemporary point of view; so that the dictatorship, Trujillo´s death, the chaos and the violence that followed all that episode, they were written from a contemporary time, with all the accumulated experience since then; but also because I wanted that a female character were one of the protagonists of the story. The dictatorship was particularly cruel to women. Like any other Latin-American dictatorship it had a sexist component; sexism is a Latin-American phenomenon. That’s why, overlapped with an authoritarian regime, it really turns women into objects which are very vulnerable to the worst abuse. For Trujillo, sex was one of the symbols of power, of his virility, the supreme value for a male chauvinist society; hence women were objects to use: fathers gave his daughters to Trujillo, he humiliated his closest collaborators by sleeping with their wives… plenty of times just to show his power, his authority over some of them

Women belonged to their fathers and husbands who tried to buy Trujillo’s momentary approval with them. They were also objects that Trujillo used to humiliate and reaffirm his power. Orgies, parties without any control were normal in Trujillo’s life, and he used the rumours generated by them to reassert his virility. He saw sex as an extension of his power. For this reason people started calling Trujiilo “el Chivo”, which means “the male goat” which is a symbol of masculinity, sexuality, degeneracy and lust.

Urania, who was Trujjillo’s sexual abuse victim, represents women during the dictatorship. It is a way of remembering and giving voice to the previously disregarded suffering and humiliation that Dominican women suffered during the Trujillo Era. Urania’s name is not casual: in the Greek mythology Urania, the smallest of the seven muses, is the daughter of Mnemosyne, who personifies the memory.

In spite of this abuse, Urania gets to rebuild her identity, she grows up, continues with her life and becomes very successful. Nevertheless, she never really gets over it. Her only hobby is reading about the Trujillo Era and she explains that her only personal goal is to understand the mind of the people in the regime. She even says that she has a wound that she is not able to cure:

[…] My only man was Trujillo. It is true. Whenever one gets close and looks at me as a woman, I feel sick. Horrified. I want him to die, I want to kill him. It’s hard to explain. I’ve studied, I work, I earn a good living. But I’m empty and still full of fear. Like those old people in New York who spend the whole day in the park, staring at nothing. […]

The Dominican Republic is personified in Urania. As in the other Latin-American nations, it was still very young when Trujillo appeared. In fact, the same as the fourteen-year-old-girl, the Dominican Republic was vexed by Trujillo during its puberty, and it even lost its identity. When Mario Vargas Llosa wrote the book, the injury that Trujillo left was still open, just like Urania’s. During the year 2000 the Dominican Republic was still acknowledging the crimes perpetuated by the regime, compensating the victims as well as trying to build its identity again.

The 30th of May they celebrate “la fiesta de la libertad(the day of freedom) in the Dominican Republic. This day is popularly known as “the feast of the goat”, as it was the day that Trujillo was killed. That day hope was born again for those living in the Dominican Republic. It is worth highlighting that in the book they also talk about the night Urania had her encounter with Trujillo as the feast of the goat. It is in this moment that the decline starts for Trujillo in the book. His impotency when he tries to rape Urania is a clear symbol of how he is losing power and masculinity. Even Trujillo makes the same interpretation and gets obsessed with proving that he is still a real man. It is the beginning of the end for him, as it is this obsession that leads him into the street where he is killed.

Catholicism was an esential part of the Dominican Republic identity. Hence it is not a suprise that the book has some references to biblical stories. Trujillo is a sort of God, who gets sacrifices and who asks for offers from his followers. He is so obsessed with loyalty that he tests those who are the closest to him, sometimes in an incredibly harsh way. In a similar fashion to Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, Urania´s father is ready to offer his own daughter as a proof of his loyalty to Trujillo when the Chief tests him, even though Trujillo did not ask for that offering explicitly. Nevertheless, while God only wanted to check that Abraham was indeed loyal to Him, Trujillo wanted to humiliate, tame and prove his virility. Hence when he is incapable of getting an erection he becomes infuriated and mistreats Urania even more.

To sum up:

With the complete command of the pen that characterises him, Mario Vargas Llosa brings us a masterpiece that shows us a historical event which is as sad as it is fascinating. He does not want to present a historical document, as he considers history as

[…] an animated chaos which historians make look like ordered, an almost infinite contradictory multiplication of  events that -in order to understand them- social sciences reduce to arbitrary schemes and synthesis that are in every case a negligible version or even a caricature of the real history, that vertiginous totality of the human events that always overwhelms the rational  and intellectual tries of understanding.

The book tries to show us Trujillo´s dictatorship from the most intimate contradictions of the protagonists. We can see Vargas Llosa’s historian point of view through Urania.

I will finish up the post with one of my favourite quotes of the book:

Your cup of coffee or glass of rum must taste better, the smoke of your cigar, a swim in the ocean on a hot day, the movie you see on Satuday, the merengue on the radio, everything must leave a more pleasurable sensation in your body and spirit when you had what Trujillo had taken away from Dominicans thirty-one years ago: free will.

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