The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Feast of the Goat
by Mario
Vargas Llosa.
The Feast of the Goat
by Mario Vargas Llosa

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

When the Colombian magazine Semana surveyed 81 experts to pick
100 best novels in Spanish published during the last 25 years,
The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa’s gripping account of a
political cult of personality run amok, finished in second place.  
Only Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s
Love in the Time of
Cholera ranked higher.

Even so, this novelistic treatment of the murderous regime of
Dominican Republic strongman Rafael Trujillo is relatively
unknown in the United States. A quick
check of shows that Mario
Vargas Llosa’s novel doesn’t rank among
the top 100,000 sellers. In contrast,
Junot Díaz’s
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao—which also deals with the
Trujillo regime, although more cursorily—
sits in the top one hundred.  Fortunately
readers don’t need to choose between the
two: the Republic of Readers (unlike
Trujillo’s Dominican Republic) has room
for many diverse and contrary voices,
and both these novels are well worth

I suspect that Díaz felt some heat from Vargas Llosa’s achievement.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took eleven years to write,
and in the middle of this effort Díaz saw the Peruvian novelist
The Feast of the Goat, which masterfully covered the same
territory Díaz hoped to stake out for himself.  I am not sure if this
added to Díaz’s writer's block, or spurred him to finish his long-
lingering work-in-progress. In any event, Díaz resorted to the
strange expedient of trying to critique Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel in
the footnotes to his own work of fiction.

I would give the nod to
The Feast of the Goat, with its intense and
focused narrative—which is not just a devastating critique of the
Trujillo regime, but is one of the most penetrating accounts you will
ever read of any tyrannical government.  To some degree,
The Twelve Caesars or Procopius’s Secret History are
more apt comparisons than
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The Feast of the Goat reads like an intensified historical account,
drawing on the psychological riches and tapestry of details that only
fiction can provide, yet creating a narrative so vividly realistic that
it feels as if the author had participated directly in the political
events he presents.

The temptation in a book of this sort is to have the whole narrative
radiate outward from the cult of personality at the center of the
tyranny. Yet our author understands that the most baneful aspects
of these regimes are the second- and third-order effects, those
indirect ways in which good people are coerced—or tread willingly—
into complicity with evil. A novel about the wickedness of one man
is a much easier story to write, but also a much easier story to put
aside and forget. Vargas Llosa reaches deeper, and reveals how a
whole ruling class can become degraded in a never-ending spiral of
fear and cowardice.

Hence, the novelist puts minor political players at the center of his
book: Urania Cabral, an embittered woman who breaks with her
father, Agustín Cabral, a member of Trujillo’s inner circle, over his
terror-stricken willingness to sacrifice everything to keep afloat in a
world built around one man’s whims. Each of these two vividly
depicted characters is, like so many other figures in this
kaleidoscopic narrative, both victim and victimizer, hero and
villain, survivor and casualty.

Many of the characters in this novel were real historical figures:
Johnny Abbes García, the chief of government intelligence under
Trujillo whose ruthlessness matched that of his boss; Antonio
Imbert Barrera, a conspirator in the assassination of the dictator
who risks everything and, in a miraculous turn of events, eventually
becomes President of the country; Joaquín Balaguer, an apparent
figurehead in the Trujillo dictatorship who eventually reveals
extraordinary craftiness and survival instincts behind his innocuous
exterior. Vargas Llosa not only tells their stories, but brings them to
life so vividly, that it is hard to imagine any historian handling these
figures with more verisimilitude.

Around these players, the author sketches dozens of other
characters, with their greater or lesser roles in the unfolding
tragedy. Vargas Llosa attempts the difficult task of encompassing a
whole wounded society in the pages of his book. A work of this
scope could easily fall apart under its own weight, or else get lost in a
labyrinth of its own construction. Yet our novelist is in complete
control, and creates a taut, inspired book of four hundred pages that
never lags, yet also never settles for mere melodrama.

There are many aspects to this book that will draw you back, again
and again, to its pages. It possesses the tone of an epic. It contains
the resonance of history. It presents tragedy intersecting tragedy,
over and over in concentric circles leading out from the seat of
power. It is a morality tale of sobering dimensions. It is an acute
study of human psychology in times of trauma. In an age in which so
many novels seem willing to settle for the most nuanced effects on
the smallest of scales,
The Feast of the Goat is a telling reminder that
fiction on a large stage is still possible. Indeed, still necessary.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Good Sqad

W. G. Sebald:

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:

A.S. Byatt:

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

Jonathan Franzen:

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

American Fiction Notes
LA Review of Books
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Literary Saloon
The Millions
The Misread City
Page Views

Disclosure note: Writers on this site and its
sister sites may receive promotional copies of
works under review.