Mario Vargas Llosa, The feast of the Goat

Mario Vargas Llosa, signing books

Mario Vargas Llosa signing books in 2010 (Courtesty: Daniele Devoti, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-2.0)

If Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa‘s The feast of the goat had been a traditional historical novel, chances are it would have started with the assassins concocting their plan and then worked chronologically to its logical conclusion. But, it is not a traditional historical novel, as is reflected in the structure Vargas Llosa has chosen to tell his story.

Before we get to that though, the plot. The central story revolves around the dying (literally) days of the 30-year Trujillo (“the Goat”, “the Benefactor”, “the devil”) regime in the Dominican Republic. This means the main action takes place in 1961. However, overlaying this is the perspective of Urania, the daughter of one of Trujillo’s head honchos. She’d left the country days before the regime ended and cut herself completely off from her father – for thirty-five years, until her sudden return at the novel’s start. The novel is told from these two time perspectives – 1960/61 and 1996 – and from multiple points-of-view*, the main ones being:

  • Urania
  • Trujillo
  • The conspirators/assassins

But this isn’t all there is to this novel’s structure and narrative style. I’m not quite sure how Vargas Llosa gets away with it, but he has written a book that is very accessible (once you get across the intricacies of Latin American names) and yet also rather complex. This complexity is found, primarily, in the structure. The book can, essentially, be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-16 proceed pretty systematically, cycling through, in turn, the stories of Urania, Trujillo (usually with one of his offsiders), and the Conspirators (usually focusing on one of them in particular). By Chapter 16 the two major crises of the book have occurred or been introduced. The last 8 chapters continue to cycle through different points-of-view but not in the same systematic order. In other words, the narrative structure becomes erratic and the rhythm more urgent, as chaos and uncertainty take over.

And yet, there’s more. For example, the novel is told primarily in third person, with the point-of-view changing chapter to chapter. But, every now and then, for just a sentence or two, or maybe a paragraph, the voice lapses into second person. This happens most often with Urania and conveys the sense that there has been some trauma that she hasn’t been able to fully integrate/recover from. We discover the origins of this trauma in Chapter 16, but it is not fully revealed until the last chapter.

… You were still a girl, when being a girl meant being totally innocent about certain things that had to do with desire, instincts, power, and the infinite excesses and bestialities that a combination of those things could mean in a country shaped by Trujillo. She was a bright girl … (Chapter 16)

This little slip into second person in Urania’s story is telling.

Okay, so this is the architecture, the behind-the-scenes technical stuff, but why write it this way? Well, the reasons are intellectual and emotional. Intellectual in that the multiple alternating points-of-view enable us to get a number of “stories” first hand. Through the eyes of the perpetrators and the disaffected, we explore the regime, and how, as happens so often with dictatorships, the early benefits are gradually (but surely) overshadowed by the corruption and violence perpetrated to maintain power, and how this leads to the assassination conspiracy. And emotional in that the constant shifting in perspective, particularly from people we can trust to those we can’t (to the best of our knowledge), and back again, unsettles and discomforts us … just as those who lived through the regime were kept on edge.

It’s impossible, without writing a thesis, to cover all the angles in this book, so I’m just going to look at one more – the characterisation of Trujillo himself. A historical novelist (rather like a biographer) has to choose what to include and what to exclude when describing a person. Vargas Llosa was lucky, really, that Trujillo had some traits that made this choice rather easy, traits that work on both the literal level and the ironic and metaphoric. Fairly early in the novel is this description of Trujillo

…that master manipulator of innocents, fools, and imbeciles, that astute exploiter of men’s vanity, greed and stupidity.

Fairly typical, wouldn’t you say, of a dictator? But, Trujillo was also fastidious about cleanliness and appearance, believing that

Appearance is the mirror of the soul.

If that’s so, then Trujillo’s “soul” is a very superficial thing because his disdain for the rights and feelings of others is palpable. Throughout the novel, Vargas Llosa sets Trujillo’s obsession with personal care (“the man who did not sweat, did not sleep, never had a wrinkle on his uniform, his tuxedo, or his street clothes”) against the coldness of his mind. That his mind is cold is made perfectly clear through his attitude to his offsiders (whom he liked to scare – “it cheered him to imagine the sizzling questions, suppositions, fears, suspicions he put into the head of that asshole who was the Minister of the Armed Forces”) and to women. This regime values machismo above all: it’s brutal to those those less powerful, and has careless disregard for the innocent. Women, of course, bear the brunt:

Again the memory of the girl at Mahogany House crossed his mind. An unpleasant episode. Would it have been better to shoot her on the spot, while she was looking at him with those eyes? Nonsense. He had never fired a gun gratuitously, least of all for things in bed. Only when there was no alternative, when it was absolutely necessary to move this country forward, or to wash away an insult.

Trujillo was nothing if not a master of self-justification.

How it all falls out, what happens after Chapter 16, is both expected and unexpected as those involved do or don’t do what they’d committed to. The end result is a devastating portrayal of how the political becomes the personal! Not a new message, perhaps, but The feast of the Goat is a compelling read that engaged my heart and mind. I recommend it.

Mario Vargas Llosa
(Trans. by Edith Grossman)
The feast of the goat
London: Faber and Faber, 2002
ISBN: 9780571207763

* As in most historical fiction, the novel is peopled with historical characters and fictional ones. Most, in fact, are historical but Urania and her father, though based, I understand, on real people, are fictional.

Monday musings on Australian literature: the Great Australian Novel, or?

Henry Handel Richardson in 1945, a year before...

Henry Handel Richardson, 1945 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

First, a confession. I am not one who believes we need to define such a beast as “The Great [name your country] Novel”. However, just to be perverse, I thought that for this week’s Monday musings it would be interesting to look at what might qualify for such a label – and, in doing so, consider what might constitute an Australian canon.

A canon gets us away from having to define the “Great Australian Novel”*, from having to decide whether it must be written by an Australian, must reflect “Australia” in some sort of specific way. In fact, on the latter, Professor Gelder, a literature professor from Melbourne argued in 2009 that globalisation and transnationalism make “the great Australian novel” “almost impossible”. This is because he defines the GAN in terms of being “a nationalist project”. And, perhaps, that’s the only way you can define a GAN. A canon, on the other hand, can be more diverse, can reflect the variety – in space, time, theme, and so on – that makes up our – and, any, really – national literature.

Without getting into the pros and cons, rights and wrongs, of polls, I thought I’d list the top ten Australian books (mostly novels) from  three different and reasonably recent polls to see what they tell us.

Poll 1: The Australian Society of Authors Top 10 as voted by their members in 2003:

  1. Cloudstreet (1991), Tim Winton
  2. The man who loved children (1940), Christina Stead
  3. The fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930), Henry Handel Richardson
  4. Dirt music (2001) Tim Winton
  5. Voss (1957) Patrick White
  6. The tree of man (1955), Patrick White
  7. The magic pudding (1918), Norman Lindsay (children’s)
  8. An imaginary life (1978), David Malouf
  9. Tirra lirra by the river (1978), Jessica Anderson
  10. My brother Jack (1964), George Johnston

Poll 2: The Australian Broadcasting Corporations’s Top 10, as voted by Australians via ABC promotions in 2003:

  1. Cloudstreet (1991), Tim Winton
  2. A fortunate life (1981), AB Facey (memoir)
  3. Dirt music (2001),Tim Winton
  4. My brother Jack (1964), George Johnston
  5. The magic pudding (1918), Norman Lindsay (children’s)
  6. The tree of man (1955), Patrick White
  7. Seven little Australians (1894), Ethel Turner (children’s)
  8. The fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930), Henry Handel Richardson
  9. Tomorrow when the war began (1993), John Marsden (young adult)
  10. My place (1987), Sally Morgan (memoir)

Poll 3: The Australian Book Review’s (ABR) Top 10, as voted by Australians via ABR promotions, 0ver 2009/10 (and reported by me last March)

  1. Cloudstreet (1991), Tim Winton
  2. The fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930), Henry Handel Richardson
  3. Voss (1957), by Patrick White
  4. Breath (2008) Tim Winton
  5. Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Peter Carey
  6. My brother Jack (1964), George Johnston
  7. The secret river (2005), by Kate Grenville
  8. Eucalyptus (1998), by Murray Bail
  9. The man who loved children (1940), by Christina Stead
  10. The tree of man (1955), Patrick White

Hmm … accounting for the fact that the third poll was taken several years after the first two and so includes a couple more recent books, the noticeable thing is the remarkable congruence between the three. You would have to say that, in the early twenty-first century, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet would get the GAN gong, though Professor Gelder would disagree. He argued that only Patrick White would qualify. He said that

Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’ got close to being a ‘great Australian novel’, but at a cost. It was nostalgic, homely, remote from reality, and conservative.

Oh dear, maybe these are the very reasons the novel is popular with readers (though authors, too, liked it!)!

Anyhow, the appealing thing to me is that, despite the to-be-expected inclusion of recent authors, these lists do also take a relatively (given the youth of our country) long view. It’s good to see the inclusion of Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead and George Johnston, alongside the also to-be-expected inclusion of our only literary Nobel Laureate, Patrick White. And, it’s satisfying to see a goodly number of women writers recognised – not only Richardson and Stead, but also Jessica Anderson, Ethel Turner, Kate Grenville and the artist/memoirst Sally Morgan.

You might think that such agreement might be reflected in what is being taught in Australian universities but you’d be wrong, at least according to the Teaching Australian Literature website. Its Top Ten texts (that is, those appearing on most reading lists) are:

  1. The secret river (2005), Kate Grenville
  2. My brilliant career (1901), Miles Franklin
  3. Remembering Babylon (1993), David Malouf
  4. Loaded (1995), Christos Tsiolkas
  5. Carpentaria (2006), Alexis Wright
  6. True history of the Kelly Gang (2000), Peter Carey
  7. Summer of the seventeenth doll (1953), Ray Lawler (play)
  8. The monkey’s mask (1994), Dorothy Porter
  9. My place (1987), Sally Morgan (memoir)
  10. Swallow the air (2006), Tara June Winch
    True country (1993), Kim Scott

A (generally) more “edgy” list and, in its own way, rather encouraging. But, where does that leave the canon? Perhaps as a work-in-progress … to which we might (or might not!) return to in Monday musings.  Meanwhile, talking about works-in-progress, Lisa at ANZLitLovers is working on a somewhat different tack. She is developing a List of Australian/New Zealand Books You Must Read. Go check it out – and if you’d like to make a suggestion, please do …

Do you think there is value to the idea of a canon? Or does it discourage wide and open-minded reading and coincidentally encourage a too narrow view of the culture it refers to?

* the GAN, not to be confused with another GAN, the “Great American Novel”.

Imre Kertèsz, Fateless (or Fatelessness)


Let’s get the first thing clear. I like holocaust literature – not because I enjoy the subject matter but because in it I find the most elemental, universal truths about humanity. Depending on the book, this literature contains various combinations of bravery and cowardice, cruelty and kindness, love and hate, self-sacrifice, self-preservation and betrayal, resilience and resignation, and  well, all those qualities that make up humanity and its converse, inhumanity. I have by no means read all that is out there but here are some that have moved me: Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl (of course) and Anne Holm’s I am David, from my youth, and then books like Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow, Bernhard Schlink’s The reader, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river. There are gaps, though, in my reading, such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s ark (I did see the film), the works of Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have, however, just added Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless to my list of books read.

Kertèsz, 2007 (Photo by Csaba Segesvari, from Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

Kertèsz, 2007 (Photo by Csaba Segesvari, from Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

Kertèsz adds a new spin to the universal truths explored by these books – it’s what he describes (in my 1992 translation anyhow) as “stubbornness” which seems to me to mean “resilience” or a determination to survive, and even to have, if possible, little wins against the system.

Anyhow, first the plot. The novel takes place over the last year of the war and concerns Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, who, one day, is suddenly called off a bus, along with all other Jews on the bus and transported to Auschwitz, and then Buchenwald, Zeitz and back to Buchenwald, before returning home at war’s end. It chronicles his experiences, his thinking, and the impact on him of his experience. He begins as the archetypal naive narrator…but by the end, though his tone has changed little, he is no longer naive. This is rather beautifully achieved as we see his youthful application of logic being changed into something more cynical and survival focused.

Gyorgy speaks with a strange sense of detachment borne, to start with, of an apparent unawareness of what exactly was happening to him and a disbelief that anything untoward would happen. And so, in the beginning, as events unfold he describes them as “natural” because of course, when they got to Auschwitz, it was sensible to inspect each person to see who was physically fit and capable of working. He didn’t know then what would happen to those not found physically fit. The horror gradually builds as reality sets in and he goes about making it through each day – through his share of beatings, the reduced food rations, and all the other deprivations that make up concentration camp life. In the first part of the book he uses the term “naturally” to mean some sort of normal logic but by the end it comes to mean, as he explains to a journalist who asks him why he keeps using the word for things that aren’t natural, that these things were natural in a concentration camp.

Early on in his captivity he says that they approached their life (and work) “with the best of intentions” but they soon discover that these “best of intentions” do not bring about any kindness from their overseers, and so his attitude to getting on, to surviving starts to change. As he starts to physically weaken, become emaciated and develop infections, he observes that “my body was still there. I was thoroughly familiar with it, only somehow I myself no longer lived inside it”. Always dispassionate, always matter-of-fact, while describing the most heart-rending things.

Towards the end, he is placed in a hospital ward and there he is treated better and, even, with a certain amount of kindness. This in its way is as shocking to him as the cruel beatings he experienced at Zeitz. He can see no logic, “no reason for its being, nothing rational or familiar”. He can only understand kindness in terms of the giver receiving “some pleasure” from it or having some “personal need” satisfied. Never is there any sense that altruism might come into play. His view of “justice” is based very much on survival. He says, when he is spared, “everything happened according to the rules of justice … I was able to accept a situation more easily when it concerned someone else’s bad luck rather than my own … This was the lesson I learned”.

And so, in the end he returns home, and finds it hard to explain to people just what happened and how he now views life. He describes getting through his time as “taking one step after another”, focusing just on the moment. He implies that if he had known his fate he would have focused on time passing – a far more soul-destroying activity than concentrating on getting through each day “step by step”. This brings us to the fate/fateless bit. He says at the end that:

if there is a fate, there is no freedom … if, on the other hand, there is freedom, then there is no fate. That is … that is, we ourselves are fate.

I find this a little hard to grasp but he seems to be saying that we are free to make our own choices, even in a concentration camp – we are not fated but make our own fate. He was and is not prepared to accept any other approach to life. But life will not be easy:

I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live … I have to continue my uncontinuable life … There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome (survived?).

And yet, at the very end of the book, he says “and even back there [in the concentration camp], in the shadow of the chimneys, there was something resembling happiness”. Wow! This is an astonishing book – it charts horrors with a calmness that is quite shocking, and it is particularly shocking not because Gyorgy is unfeeling but because he can’t quite grasp what is happening to him. This is the fundamental irony of the book, and the fundamental truth of a naive narrator: we the reader know exactly how it is even as Gyorgy tries to make sense of it using logic and reason. I must read this book again – and preferably the newer more highly regarded 2004 translation by Tom Wilkinson.

(Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson)

J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a bad year

Coetzee, Poland, 2006 (Photo: Mariusz Kubik, from Wikipedia)

Coetzee, Poland, 2006 (Photo: Mariusz Kubik, from Wikipedia)

J.M. Coetzee is one of those rare novelists who pushes the boundaries of what a novel is. The progression from his mid-career novel, the spare but terrifying Disgrace (1999), through Elizabeth Costello (2003) to Diary of a bad year (2007) is so dramatic that there are those who question whether these last two are even novels. It’s actually been a year or so since I read Diary of a bad year but it is currently being discussed by one of my reading groups so now seemed to be a good time to blog about it here.

One of the first things to confront the reader who picks up Diary of a bad year is how to read it. It has three (two to begin with) concurrent strands running across the top, middle and bottom of the page. Some readers try to read the three strands as concurrently as possible while others read the strands sequentially. Following this latter path, though, means you risk missing the way the strands comment on each other. The three strands are:

  • the narrator’s formal voice, basically taking the form of essays he is writing
  • the narrator’s informal voice in which he talks about his life as he is writing the essays
  • the voice of Anya, his “little typist”, and, through her, of her boyfriend, Alan

The three characters represent three modes of viewing the world: the narrator’s is primarily theoretical, while Anya’s is more pragmatic and Alan’s rational. Through these modes, Coetzee teases out the moral conundrums of the early 21st century both in terms of the political (the events confronting us) and the personal (how are we to live).

Towards the end, Coetzee refers to his love of Bach. To some degree the book is a paean to Bach: its three-part structure in which each part counterpoints the others seems to be a textual representation of Bach’s polyphony. The essays running across the top of the page, while a little uneven and dry on their own, are counterpointed by the views of the characters in the other two strands, resulting in our being presented with different ways of viewing the same world.

The characterisation is interesting: Senor C, the writer of the essays, is the logical, moral but somewhat pessimistic thinker; Anya is practical, down to earth, but with a strong moral sense; and Alan is the economic rationalist for whom money is essentially everything. The views of the two men are strongly contrasted, while Anya is caught in the middle. There is a Darwinian sense in Alan of the survival of the fittest, while Senor C spurns competition as a way of life, preferring collaboration. For all his “moral” views, though, Senor C is not presented as a paragon and we are discomforted at times by his attitude towards the beautiful Anya.

The overall theme seems to be how do we live in a world full of paradoxes and contradictions, a world that seems to be pervaded by dishonour and shame (the things Senor C explores in the essays). He talks about ordinary people and how they (we) cope with things they (we) don’t approve of. He wonders why they (we) don’t do something about it, but suggests in the end that they (we) practise “inner emigration”. He says:

The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.

I like that concept though it does smack of burying one’s head in the sand. He also talks about collective guilt, and about bearing the dishonour of what’s gone on before. Through choosing a “novel” form like no other, one which blends but in no way harmonises fact and fiction, Coetzee shows in a very concrete way that difficult times need new ways of presenting ideas. He offers no neat conclusions, no easy outs;  he is quite subversive really. Late in the book he ponders the value of writing, and says:

Are these words written on paper truly what I wanted to say?

This then is another step in Coetzee’s path of trying to find the best, perfect perhaps, way of saying what he wants to say. I, for one, will be ready for his next step.

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

One of my rules of reading is that when I have finished a book I go back and read the first chapter (or so) and any epigraphs the author may have included. These can often provide a real clue to meaning. This rule certainly applies to my latest read, Snow, by Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk.


Snow, in fact, has no less than four epigraphs:

  • lines from Robert Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” describing the paradoxical nature of things: “the honest thief, the tender murderer,/the superstitious atheist”;
  • a quote from Stendhal’s The charterhouse of Parma which warns about the ugliness of “politics in a literary work”;
  • a quote from Dostoevsky’s Notebooks for the Brothers Karamazov which suggests ideals like the European Enlightenment are “more important than people”; and
  • Joseph Conrad’s statement in Under Western eyes that “The Westerner in me was discomposed”.

These four epigraphs pretty well sum up the concerns of the book. What about the title? The second chapter begins with:

Veiling as it did the dirt, the mud and the darkness, the snow would continue to speak to Ka of purity, but after his first day in Kars, it no long promised innocence.

Here then is the first paradox: snow is pure but not innocent, and it covers dirt, mud and darkness. Already, you can see that this book is going to be ironic. Just how ironic though is a matter for contention but my suspicion is that its very foundation is ironic, as it grapples with what it means to be an artist in a political society, with how one is to live in a conflicted nation. The plot centres on a coup – a coup which is variously called a military coup and a theatrical coup! In fact, it is a coup by a theatrical group that is supported by the military! Art and politics could hardly be more entwined.

Kars Photo: Jean & Nathalie @ flickr (Creative Commons licence)

Kars Photo: Jean & Nathalie @ flickr (Creative Commons licence)

Snow though is not an easy read. It is my third Pamuk, but only the second one I have completed. I loved his memoir-cum-history Istanbul but could not, hard as I tried, finish My name is red.

What then is it about? The main action covers three days in the life of Ka, a Turkish poet recently returned from 12 years exile in Germany, who comes to Kars (in far east Turkey) ostensibly to write about the suicide epidemic among young women, but whose secondary (or perhaps primary!) reason is to fall in love with an old school-friend, Ipek. Soon after he arrives, however, the coup occurs and Ka is, rather unwillingly, caught up in the intrigue between the competing interests: the secularists, the Islamic fundamentalists, and the Kurdish nationalists. This sets the stage for exploring the art-politics nexus. Ka says to Sunay, the leader of the coup AND of the theatrical troupe that comes into town:

I know that you staged the coup not just for the sake of politics but also as a thing of beauty and in the name of art … you know only too well that a play in which Kadife bares her head for all of Kars to see will be no mere artistic triumph; it will also have profound political consequences.

Here then is one evocation of the second epigraph. The third and fourth epigraphs refer to the running conflict in the book between European/Western values and Turkish/Eastern values. There is very much a sense that the people of Kars feel condescended to by European culture, but as a teen-ager says at one point, “We are not stupid! We’re just poor”. The people of Kars do not understand Western notions of individualism, and they see Western ideas of secularism and atheism as equating with immorality. Ka, as a Westernised Turk, acts as an uncomfortable, to him, bridge between the two worlds.

The core of the book is Ka. He is a sad and highly conflicted individual who, in his youth, had used words to argue that people should act for “the common good” but now finds himself using them to further his own happiness. Once politically active, “he now knew that the greatest happiness in life was to embrace a beautiful, intelligent woman and sit in a corner writing poetry”. The irony is that, for all his attempts to achieve this, he ends up with neither and dies four years after the coup a sad and lonely man.

The novel is interesting, stylistically and structurally. It is essentially a third person story about Ka but is told by a first person narrator, Ka’s friend, the novelist Orhan(!). This metafictional narrative technique, by adding another layer to the “conversation”, rather deepens the “artist in society” and art/politics themes of the book. Much of the story is foreshadowed: we learn of Ka’s death in Chapter 29, though the book has 44 chapters. The tone of the book is imbued with huzun, that very particular Turkish sense of melancholy that Pamuk explores beautifully in his book Istanbul. And, while it is about a coup and has a body count of 29, there are some very funny scenes, one being the political meeting at which the competing rebels prepare a statement about their beliefs for the Western Press. Anyone who has attended a political meeting will feel at home here!

All this said, the book is a challenge to grasp: there are a lot of characters, comings-and-goings, and ideas to track. Just why Ka is the way he is, just what did happen to him in the end, and just what Orhan is saying about art and politics are hard to pin down. I love the way the book is underpinned by paradox and irony – and yet at times the meaning can be a little tricky to discern. What is clear though is that Ka has found living by his political beliefs deeply unsatisfying but, ironically, is unable to bring about a situation in which he can live “happily” any other way.

Kadife, the leader of the headscarf girls, says (fairly early in the book):

…do not assume from this that our religion leaves no room for discussion. I will say that I am not prepared to discuss my faith with an atheist, or even a secularist. I beg your pardon.

Oh dear! Some reviewers call it a brave book. With its fearless exploration of the tensions in modern Turkey, it certainly feels that way. I am very glad that I put in the effort to read it.