By Mario Vargas Llosa
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
Translated by Edith Grossman
ISBN # 0-374-15476-7
404 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2008

Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliantly constructed picture of the last days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic is a riveting account, set inside a sad and touching family drama. The novel flows back and forth from a 1996 visit to Santo Domingo by Dr. Urania Cabral, and 1961, the year she left the DR and the year of Trujillo’s assassination.

The personal story of a family tragedy within the Cabral family is fictional, sad, troubling and brilliantly told by Llosa. The flashback scenes of many events in 1961, while fictionally reconstructed are mainly historical using the real men of the time as characters.

The novel begins with Urania’s arrival back in Santo Domingo in 1996, not quite sure why she is there, but desperately needing to confront her father over events in their family life in 1961 when he sent her to the U.S. to study, just a 15 year old girl. Her mother had died when she was very young and her doting father was a high ranking figure in Trujillo’s government. However, a terrible break between Urania and her father has dominated the 35 years since she left, and a severe cerebral hemorrhage ten years earlier has left him in a vegetative state. Since 1961 Urania has succeeded well in her work world, graduating from a convent school to which he sent her, then Harvard University and a rather spectacular career in international finance. Yet she has had absolutely no contact with her father or any other family member since 1961 despite countless letters and phone calls from their side. However, she is now back and even though her 83 year old invalid father has no ability to communicate with her, and probably no ability to understand her, she desperately needs this confrontation.

Perhaps the most spectacular writing of the novel is Llosa’s treatment of her father. On her own view she realizes he only understands 5 – 10% of what she’s saying and that for just a few moments with most likely no memory of it after that. But she can’t stop the tirade she’s kept bottled inside her for more than 30 years. Llosa’s handling of the father – his grunts, an ambiguous mouth movement, a laugh (?) – all of it is filled with uncertainty, ambiguity and she can’t quite read it or understand it. It’s an incredible job of writing this silent father.

Much of the story emanates from his work with and position in the Trujillo government, and as she is talking to her father about the father – daughter relationship, Llosa takes us back to 1961 and even earlier, to situate the whole story inside the Trujillo dictatorship.

The treatment of the Trujillo government and plot leading to his assassination is marvelously constructed with alternating chapters of the 1996 visit between father and daughter, to the turmoil of the early 1961 events.

Llosa makes us feel the conflicting emotions of those in Trujillo’s inner-most circle – feelings toward him of an almost god-like figure, yet the terrible fear and hatred of him; feelings of greed and enjoyment of power, yet the realization that the direction of the country is destroying any possibility of decent life there, even for them. The re-creation of the mind-set within these high circles of Trujillistas is gripping, sad and chilling. Llosa is a wonderful story teller.

I came to the novel knowing relatively little of the details of the Trujillo regime, but knowing much more about the Duvalier dictatorship in next door Haiti and especially of the famous 1937 slaughter of Haitians who were living in the Dominican Republic. However, from several dozen accounts of the massacre which I had read in Haitian sources and U.S. newspaper accounts and scholars from the U.S. I had always understood it as a horror story of brutal murders of innocent and helpless Haitians. Thus I was astonished when I read Urania’s father’s account, which he cited in 1961 when defending Trujillo’s actions:

You can say what you like about the Chief [Trujillo]. History, at least, will recognize that he has created a modern country, and put the Haitian in their place. “Great ills demand great remedies!” The Chief found a small country barbarized by wars among the caudillos, a country without law and order, impoverished, losing its identity, invaded by its starving, ferocious neighbors. They waded across the Masacre River and came to steal goods, animals, houses, they took the jobs of our agricultural workers, perverted our Catholic religion with their diabolical witchcraft, violated our women, ruined our Western Hispanic culture, language, and customs, imposed their African savagery on us. The Chief cut the Gordian knot: “Enough!” Great ills demand great remedies! He not only justified the massacre of Haitians in 1937; he considered it a great accomplishment of the regime. Didn’t he save the Republic from being prostituted a second time by that marauding neighbor? What do five, ten, twenty thousand Haitians matter when it’s a question of saving an entire people?”

Not only was I utterly astonished to read that account of the massacre, but it was chilling to me how little would have to be changed in that description to make it sound like so many contemporary Americans talking about the undocumented workers from Mexico who are in the U.S.

Later in the novel there is an entire chapter about the Haitian massacre of 1937 which is in the same vein as the quote I cited.

If we jump to the 1996 period of Urania’s story, there is another section that simply astounded me. Llosa so accurately captures the forgetfulness of people about life under dictators. Again, I didn’t know the details of the Trujillo dictatorship before reading this novel, but I know them in great detail about the Duvalier father-son dictatorship in Haiti, and the details aren’t very different.

Llosa has the young nurse who is caring for Urania’s father make this comment about the Dominica Republic in 1996 – I’ve heard almost these same words about today's Haiti as well --

[The nurse was 4 when Trujillo died] “Well I mean” – the woman is trying to be agreeable – “he might have been a dictator and everything else they say about him, but people seemed to live better back then. Everybody had jobs and there wasn’t so much crime….”
[The narrator then comments:] “Perhaps it was true that because of the disastrous governments that came afterward, many Dominicans missed Trujillo. Now they had forgotten the abuses, the murders, the corruption, the spying, the isolation, the fear: horror had become myth. Everybody had jobs and there wasn’t so much crime.”

The novel is a gripping read. It bares the evil and terror of the Trujillo regime in merciless detail. I would recommend the book to all. It is not only a phenomenal story; it is fine literature in the bargain.

Bob Corbett


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