A Goat and a Feast

Mario Vargas Llosa in Madrid, March 2016 (Andrea Comas/Reuters)
On Trujillo, Vargas Llosa, and more

A few years ago, I wrote a book called “Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators.” I selected 20 dictators and their offspring. I did not aim for that round, juicy number, 20. I simply drew up the dictators I thought I should survey, and it came to 20.

Some of the dictators one would have included did not have children. Lenin is the obvious example. Another is Ho Chi Minh.

My list of 20 could have been different. In Soviet Europe, I included Hoxha of Albania and Ceausescu of Romania. I could have done East Germany’s Honecker — who joined his family in Chile after his downfall. In the Caribbean, I included Castro of Cuba (Fidel, though I touch on Raúl) and Duvalier of Haiti. I could have done Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.

In fact, I mention this in my foreword, and have a parenthetical aside: “(He renamed the capital city after himself, a very dictatorial thing to do.)”

In retrospect, that might have been too light an aside — he did a lot more than that.

He had six children, on the books. A lot of dictators — like other men, frankly — have children off the books. I also call these “unofficial children” or “extracurricular children.”

Two of Trujillo’s sons were named after characters in Aida, the Verdi opera: Ramfis and Radhamés. That’s strange and interesting right there.

‐I don’t read novels much — I’m out of the habit. Haven’t really read them in years, except a few I have reviewed, and the novels of my close friends. (I don’t even read the novels of my casual friends.)

A friend of mine gave me a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa. After a while, I picked it up and read it.

I have read Vargas Llosa all my life, of course: I mean, his journalism, his essays, his views. I’ve always admired him. I’ve always regarded him as one of the great classical liberals in Latin America (and there are precious few).

But this novel, ladies and gentlemen: It’s a work of genius. Genuinely. Seldom has a Nobel Prize in Literature been so earned as Vargas Llosa’s. I mean, holy-moly.

‐The novel is The Feast of the Goat, published in 2000. It is a portrait of Trujillo and his dictatorship. That dictatorship ran from 1930 until 1961, when Trujillo was assassinated.

“Goat” is what his enemies called him (behind his back). The more common names for him were “Chief,” “Benefactor,” and the like.

In this novel, Vargas Llosa depicts a country in the grip of a dictatorship and a cult of personality — the country’s mesmerism, the country’s adherence, the country’s fear. If I may, I know a thing or two about dictatorship, though not at first hand. I have spoken to many, many people who have lived through dictatorship. I have studied it at length. I have written about it.

And let me tell you: I don’t know of a book that captures more precisely — more searchingly, more deeply, more perfectly — what a dictatorship is, and what a country in the thrall of a dictator is, than this novel, The Feast of the Goat. It is a masterpiece of thought, understanding, and writing.

How the hell does Vargas Llosa know all that he knows? He who has lived only in free countries (as far as I know)? I don’t know. I think he has great imagination, great intellect, and — this is crucial — great sympathy.

Also, how the hell does he know so much about the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo? One of his main characters has long had a “‘perverse hobby’: reading and collecting books on the Trujillo Era.” I suspect that this was Vargas Llosa’s hobby, too, for a time.

‐A word about Ramfis, one of the dictator’s Aida sons. He is a type very familiar to me: the little monster of a monster, the spoiled brat who exploits his position to the full, swaggering, raping, and otherwise brutalizing his way through society. His counterparts include Vasily Stalin, Nicu Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein’s boys (Uday and Qusay, those “scamps,” as Senator McCain called them), and Kongulu Mobutu.

You know what the Mobutu kid’s nickname was? “Saddam Hussein.”

‐Stick with Mobutu for a moment — the chief, the dictator (in Zaire, as he renamed his country). I will quote from Children of Monsters:

… he did not confine his sex life to the twins [his wife and her identical twin, his mistress]. He slept with many others, including the wives of his cabinet members. In 1993, an ex–cabinet member explained it this way to Time magazine: “The president enjoys an almost feudal droit du seigneur. He uses sex as a tool to dominate the men around him. You get money or a Mercedes-Benz, and he takes your wife and you work for him.” Another observer remarked to Time, “The complaints of those he has cuckolded only add to his mystique as a virile and powerful ruler.”

So it was with Trujillo, as depicted in The Feast of the Goat — although no man complained. To complain would have been suicidal.

‐Let me quote again from Children of Monsters — about Iraq’s Saddam, in particular. His dictatorship

was a clan-centered one. Important positions were filled with blood relatives. Saddam did not like to keep a happy family, either. He enjoyed playing people off one another, letting no one get too comfortable. He liked to maintain a constant state of turmoil, anxiety, and fear. If an individual or faction was up one day, he or it would be down the next. “Saddam Hussein constantly played political chess,” writes Joseph Sassoon, in his 2012 study of the regime (Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party).

So it was with Trujillo — although he did not have a clan-centered dictatorship. Still, he liked to keep everyone off balance. His ministers and other courtiers competed for his favor, and they competed with one another slyly and viciously. Vargas Llosa’s depiction of all this is stunning — delicious, stunning, and grotesque.

‐Do you know what double-think is? It comes from Orwell, and it comes from life — it particularly comes from dictatorship. One dictionary definition says, “the acceptance of two contradictory ideas or beliefs at the same time.” There is also this: You talk and act one way, but, inwardly, you have doubts.

Every dictatorial society — every “fear society” — has three groups, and here I am drawing on Sharansky. Those three groups are true-believers, double-thinkers, and dissidents. The first and third groups are very small. The middle group is very big — the vast majority.

Oh, does Vargas Llosa know all this, and, oh, does he write about it superbly. I could quote any number of passages. In this long sentence, Vargas Llosa is talking about a would-be assassin of Trujillo:

It had been this malaise of so many years’ duration — thinking one thing and doing something that contradicted it every day — that led him, in the secret recesses of his mind, to condemn Trujillo to death, to convince himself that as long as Trujillo lived, he and many other Dominicans would be condemned to this awful queasy sickness of constantly having to lie to themselves and deceive everyone else, of having to be two people in one, a public lie and a private truth that could not be expressed.

‐One of the insidious things about a dictatorship is that, sooner or later, everyone is guilty, to one degree or another. Everyone is co-opted, everyone becomes an accomplice. Everyone sells out, so to speak.

Vargas Llosa makes this point time after time, brilliantly and painfully.

I remember what a Cuban American told me once. This is a direct quote: “It takes a martyr-level courage even to function as a decent human being in Cuban society.” What did she mean? A martyr-level courage not to steal, not to inform, not to brutalize, not to sell sexual favors, not to buy them, not to lie …

‐A theme throughout dictatorships, on every continent: You, a courtier, may fall out of favor — and never know why. This torments you (even as you may be tormented by the dictator’s torturers). The dictator may have no reason at all. It could be that he simply wants no one to get too comfortable.

Pardon my repetition, but Vargas Llosa depicts this superbly.

Also, no amount of loyalty is ever enough. Ever. The dictator is insatiable for loyalty. If there is no disloyalty to be found, he will invent some, just to appease his paranoia.

‐Earlier, I spoke of being in thrall to a dictator. I spoke of a mesmerism, too. Listen to what Vargas Llosa says about a general, famous for his courage — except around the Chief:

… 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.

A dictator has the power to hurt you — to torture you, to kill you. To determine your fate. That’s why you tremble and quail. Isn’t it so even with a particularly bad boss at work, when you need the job? And when a dictator falls — he is nothing, to be cursed and spat upon.

What does Tosca say, after she plunges the dagger into Scarpia, and he dies at her feet? “Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma.” “Before him, all Rome trembled.” No more.

‐Vargas Llosa writes about one of the regime’s most awful “customs”: “venting its wrath on the families of those it wanted to punish, on their parents, children, brothers and sisters, confiscating all they had, imprisoning them, taking away their jobs” — and worse.

Yes. This is true in dictatorships the world over. Recently, I wrote about Thae Yong-ho, the highest-ranking diplomat ever to defect from North Korea. As a rule, North Korean diplomats have to leave at least one child behind in Pyongyang, as a hostage, or insurance. Otherwise, virtually the entire North Korean diplomatic corps would defect. For some reason, Thae was able to have both of his sons with him. So he jumped.

And yet one has an extended family: parents, aunts, uncles, cousins …

‐In The Feast of the Goat, people often address Trujillo as “Excellency.” Allow me a memory. At Davos one winter, a group of us journalists had a coffee with Ahmed Nazif, who was then the prime minister of Egypt. My colleagues from the Middle East were addressing him as “Your Excellency,” and referring to him as “His Excellency.” I thought this was noteworthy, in that Egypt was then keen on presenting itself as democratic.

So, I asked Nazif, “How is it that the prime minister of Egypt is addressed as ‘Your Excellency’ and referred to as ‘His Excellency’?” There was a representative of the World Economic Forum there, and he looked at me — I swear — as though he could kill me.

But Nazif himself took it in stride. He gave me a bit of a grin and said, “Well, 50 years ago it was ‘Pasha.’”

‐Many times, I have written about “actos de repudio” in Cuba — “acts of repudiation.” What happens is this: A government-inspired mob appears in front of the house of a disfavored person. They hurl things at it, scrawl things on it, and scream threats. They also use their fists, when they can.

Apparently, something like this happened in the Dominican Republic as well. They were rival dictatorships, Castro’s and Trujillo’s — and they had a lot in common.

‐Not long ago, I was reviewing the life of Manuel Noriega, the onetime dictator of Panama — because I was writing his obit. Remember when he was hiding out in the Vatican embassy and U.S. forces blared rock music at him, day and night, in order to drive him nuts?

In The Feast of the Goat, Trujillo’s forces do this too — they do it to recalcitrant nuns and priests. They don’t blare rock music but “popular Trujillista merengues.”

‐On March 5, 1953, the people of the Soviet Union went mad with grief, because Stalin had died. Why? Why did they not turn cartwheels in the streets? This is part of the mesmeric nature of dictatorships, with their cults of personality. People are brainwashed in myriad ways.

As time passed, people could see Stalin more clearly.

In Children of Monsters, I wrote of Stalin’s relatives, some of whom had beloved mothers or fathers murdered by Stalin, or sent to the Gulag by him. And they worshipped his memory — for decades and decades. Why?

Again, this belongs to the mesmeric nature of dictatorship (and it is all the more mesmerizing when you are close to the Great Man). Mario Vargas Llosa knows all this so very well.

‐In the Dominican Republic, people eventually lost their fear. Not immediately — not immediately after Trujillo’s assassination — but eventually. The way Vargas Llosa puts it is, the spell was broken: “the spell that had kept so many Dominicans devoted, body and soul, to Trujillo.”


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