Sunday, August 01, 2004

El Jefe

I am currently reading Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, which narrates the end of the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (whom Dominicans called El Jefe (The Chief)) in the Dominican Republic. The novel deals with how nations, as a group and as individuals, free themselves from abusive, authoritarian regimes . There are actually two narratives, each taking place in different time periods. The first takes place 1961, telling the story of the assassination and the explaining the reasons why the individual conspirators became involved in toppling Trujillo. Each of these chapters goes into the backstory of one of conspirators, explaining how Trujillo stole their dignity and was able to control them. In the second narrative, a daughter of one of Trujillo’s loyal ministers returns to remember the atrocities of the dictatorship by confronting her father, who now has little ability to communicate.

Trujillo with Eleanor Roosevelt

This novel is dense. I would compare Vargas Llosa’s writing style to Thomas Mann. On the surface it is a political novel that is rife with historical characters and events; deeper down it delves into the psychology of humiliation and obedience. Within a single conversation characters think about atrocities and crimes that occurred, like the massacre of Haitians in the 1930s. The conspirators failed to act, explaining away the crime while underlying their powerlessness. In the background, there is constant discussion about how the Dominican Republic’s relations with the US were changing. Impatience and disapproval under Eisenhower were turning into conflict under Kennedy. The conspirators saw the tide turning, and adjusted accordingly.

However, each character was touched by Trujillo directly and profoundly. El Jefe kills their siblings. He fucks their wives. Trujillo shamelessly boasts about his sexual exploits in front of these men. And he keeps them close by. These humiliations silence the men and makes them obedient, but the pain also simmers inside them. Probing into the psychology of these men, Vargas Llosa questions whether their motives were moral or personal, asking if the difference between the two matters.

Certainly killing Trujillo does not heal the country. The later narrative–the confrontation between Urania and her father, the disgraced minister, is a reckoning with the past that can only come with time. Her conversations with her father are accusations for his cowardice in the face of a monster. Urania returns to the island for the first time in decades. She is obsessed with the Trujillo years, consuming great quantities of scholarship. But she feels less anger over the regime in its totality than how it affected her personally. She trembles at the thought that Trujillo may have slept with her mother, but she has difficulties shaking the notion that the years of dictatorship were prosperous and safe.

Vargas Llosa is unforgiving in his portrayal of El Jefe. He has a sexual appetite that is both insatiable and sadistic. He is obsessed with enhancing his sexual prowess, while at the same time he diminishes that of his supporters. He pursues his enemies abroad, organizing their deaths in such a way that his enemies are disgraced as well.

Many passages in this book are disturbing. Like many of the books that I have read about Rwanda, I stop often to reflect on what I have just read. Too many are interesting. In one of them, Urania confronts her father about Ramfis, Trujillo’s son, who was an asshole in his own right. As a minister the father was quiet about Ramfis’ sexual violence. Only when Ramfis notices his daughter does the father warn her, showing his unwillingness to face the crimes of the regime. (I could not help compare Ramfis’ behavior to that of the families of other dictators.)
“The handsome Ramfis, he committed endless abuses. How you trembled at the thought of him noticing me.”

Her father did not know, because Urania never told him, that she and her classmates at Santo Domingo Academy, and perhaps all the girls of her generation, dreamed about Ramfis. With his thin mustache in the style of a Mexican movie star, his Ray-Ban sunglasses, his well-tailored suits and the variety of uniforms he wore as head of the Dominican Air Force, his big dark eyes and athletic build, his solid-gold watches and rings and his Mercedes-Benzes, he seemed favored by the gods: rich, powerful, good-looking, healthy, strong, happy ...”

“You can’t imagine how often I dream of him, Papa.” ...

“What else could he have been but the parasite, drunkard, rapist, good-for-nothing, criminal, mentally unbalanced man he was? My friends and I ... didn’t know any of that when we were in love with Ramfis. But you knew, Papa. That’s why you were so afraid he would notice me and take a liking to your little girl, that’s why you looked the way you did the time he kissed me and paid me a compliment. I didn’t understand a thing.”


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