Monday, June 18, 2018

Reading for Pleasure

– Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel “The feast of the goat”-

A few years ago, during one of our conversations, my younger brother, Hari (Dr.HK Varma) told me about the brilliance of the writing of the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. It was heartening to note that that the scientist in him had not lost touch with human sensibilities despite his busy schedules involving lots of international travel and the nitty-gritty of administration. I was working for a Company at that time and my days were mostly in the office or in travel leaving me with little option for reading. Still, I managed to read Llosa’s “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter”, that made very interesting reading with its many hilarious anecdotes. (I remember the scriptwriter in the novel who used to sell his Radio scripts to telecasting companies by weight. This I feel is applicable to many of the TV serial scripts presently telecast by most of the regional language channels in our Country.) The book is partly autobiographical with details of the 18-year-old narrator falling for a 32-year-old divorcee in Peru of the 50’s.

Now that I have time at my disposal, I keep myself busy with various activities that interest me.

One of the streets of Palakkad where I go for a morning walk

I go for long walks in the morning enjoying the nature and later do my researches on various war medals in my collection. I have lots of cataloguing to be completed for my collectibles that include war medals, coins, antiques, and books. Besides spending time with my wife Sindhu and talking to her on various subjects as a dispassionate observer, I give her a helping hand to make an occasional exotic dish. I go for an evening walk as well to the heritage village of Kalpathy enjoying the scenes and breathing the aromatic scents of various eatables freshly made by the street vendors. This is a place where the time stands still. I think it has been so since the 13th century when the Tamil Brahmins started to migrate to this part of the land. ( The place has a vague resemblance to the busy streets of the Wild West with people, wagons and animals and the occasional Tavern. Here, the cow replaces the horse and the coffee shop comes in place of the pub). I work on my computer a good part of the day and find time for reading for which I have built up a few cupboards of selected books.

Drawing of an old western town of the 19th century

One of the streets of the heritage village of Kalpathy, 2018

I just completed reading the magnificent historical novel, “The Feast of the Goat” by Mario Vargas Llosa. The official website of the Nobel Prize announced thus: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat". In this outstanding work of historical fiction, Llosa has brought out various powerful images vouchsafing the above citation.

Mario Vargas Llosa

The book dwells on the assassination of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the dictator of The Dominican Republic who ruled the country with an iron grip from 1930 to 30th May 1961 the day on which he was shot dead by a team of seven conspirators most of whom were his former associates. 

The Dominican Republic with its capital at Santo Domingo is a Caribbean nation with Haiti bordering its West. Countries in the region like Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama all were fertile grounds for revolutions, uprisings and dictatorships due to the geographical, demographic, economic and political reasons of the 19th and 20th centuries. There always was the US, the big brother, watching over these nations with keen self-interests of its own. No wonder, the Dominican Republic gave birth to a most intelligent, cunning and brutal dictator in Rafael Trujillo who had earlier been trained by the US Marines during its occupation.

Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina  (1891 –1961)

The fascinating yet bloody tale is viewed from different angles, the primary one being from the beautiful spinster  Uranita Cabral, a senior official of the World Bank and daughter of Augustine Cabral who was the Secretary of State under Trujillo administration. She recounts her story after 35 years of the assassination when she visited the Country for the first time in as many years. She had some startling revelations to be made before her paternal aunt and her daughters as her father lay dying paralyzed. Then, there is the story of the conspiracy and the assassination from the side of the conspirators portrayed by Llosa with great skill and with his keen understanding of the working of the human mind and its struggle for survival in difficult times. The aftermath of the assassination and the brutal retaliation and tortures that followed are portrayed by Llosa in great detail keeping the reader with a pounding heart. We also have a view of the Country and the political leadership through the eyes of Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, the Dictator who preferred to be known as “The Chief” or “The Benefactor”.

While most of the characters in the novel are actual people who lived, there are a few like Uranita who are fictional characters. All the 24 chapters of this 475 pages novel are most engrossing.

Llosa’s portrayal of the Generalissimo, his intelligence Chief Johnny Abbes Garcia and Dr.Balaguer, the puppet President who later came to his own man are particularly powerful. Man’s craving for justice, his cruelties, greed, passions, the urge for survival and ultimately the futility of most actions reflect in the novel taking its turn through various characters. We also realize that the nemesis always catches up with a man based on his actions. Once we read the epilogue of the events that followed, we realize that the law of “Karma” is absolute or unassailable. Otherwise, how do you interpret the untimely accidental death of Ramfis Trujillo, playboy son of the Dictator, who committed untold atrocities after the assassination of his father? How does one explain the Alzheimer’s disease that caught up with the “Bountiful First Lady”, Dona Maria Martinez de Trujillo who opened many numbered Swiss Bank accounts to which millions of dollars were transferred and then forgot about all these numbers that were never shared with anyone including her children due to mistrust? She died in exile in Miami in 1989.

I don’t have pretentions as a literary critique and hence do not want to approach the novel from that angle. As one who loves good books, I recommend the book to my young readers who would definitely gain much after reading it. They are sure to grow emotionally and intellectually. Llosa, no doubt is one of the greatest of Latin American writers of all time and this book underscores the truth most emphatically.

Aldous Huxley paid tributes to his friend D.H.Lawrence in the following words. “He seemed to know, by personal experience, what it was like to be a tree or a daisy or a breaking wave or even the mysterious moon itself. He could get inside the skin of an animal and tell you in the most convincing detail how it felt and how, dimly, inhumanly, it thought. “

This above comment is applicable to Llosa as well, I am convinced. 

Palakkad, South India
19th June 2018 

Photo credits: and other websites.


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