The Caribbean in 1961 is not the Mediterranean half a century later. Nevertheless, readers seeking to understand the decline and fall of authoritarian regimes--and the havoc they leave in their wake--could do no better than to start with a book set far afield from recent events in North Africa and the Gulf.
When Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature in Stockholm last December, the Swedish Academy cited his "cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat." In his acceptance speech Vargas Llosa paid tribute to fiction's power to inspire readers to greater ambition, to dissent and to political action. None of Vargas Llosa's novels fits these words better than La Fiesta del Chivo (beautifully translated by Edith Grossman as The Feast of the Goat). In applauding his award, critics agreed that this searing portrait of the end of the rule of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was among the greatest of his works, perhaps the greatest. When it was published in 2000, La Fiesta del Chivo revived Vargas Llosa's reputation after his disastrous foray into Peruvian politics.
The book stands out not only because of the author's undoubted skills as a writer but also because of his painstaking research. In the latter 1990s Vargas Llosa came to the Dominican Republic and spent many months reading everything he could find about the years before and after the 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo, speaking to everyone who had played a part in the events and was willing to talk to him, including, not long before he died, a key player during--and especially after--Trujillo's final years, Joaquin Bataguer.
La Fiesta del Chivo lays open the role of key political actors of the era: Trujillo himself, puppet-president Balaguer, chief enforcer Johnny Abbes Garcia and each of the six assassins--or rather, as they are now universally regarded, liberators. In addition to the physical harm the regime wreaked through murder and torture on its real and imagined enemies land often their families as well), he describes the mental destructiveness in which it excelled, in the form of character assassination and public humiliation. I know of no better insight into the inner workings of the caudillo regime, of the egomaniacal ruthless dictator sustained by a repressive state apparatus and compliant media.
Yet the book is not a...