Sunday, June 24, 2018

Mario Vargas Llosa, Conversation in the Cathedral (1969)

So it takes place in Peru in the 1950s (where and when Vargas Llosa himself was growing up), under the military dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría (Christ, there have been so goddamn many dictators in this world it's impossible to keep track of them all). The protagonists are Santiago Zavala, a senator's son working as a mediocre journalist for a middling newspaper; and Ambrosio, his father's former chauffeur and, at various times, hired goon. They meet at random and go to have drinks ("The Cathedral" is the name of a restaurant/bar, though the connotations with actual cathedrals and confessions is clearly not coincidental). They talk about their lives, the lives of related characters, and the life of the country, if you like. theory; this whole conceit is a bit inconsistent. There are places where Santiago and Ambrosio's "present-day" conversation drops out, and there are plenty of parts about things that neither of them could possibly have been privy to. Also, you have to wonder just how damn long this "conversation" would have to have been, for a six-hundred-page novel. I suppose it raises similar questions that you get in Conrad novels: just how long is this story that Marlow is supposed to be telling, anyway? Well, that's not really important.

What is important is that this whole "telling stories about their past" business determines the structure of the book: you have as many as three or four narratives taking place in the same sections, switching back and forth between and sometimes within paragraphs. It can be a bit disorienting, but it's not that difficult when you get used to it. Actually, for reasons that elude me, that's only part of it; the book actually switches structures between the first and third parts and the second and fourth: in the former, it's as described; whereas in the latter it's somewhat more "normal:" chapters are split into segments of several pages-ish, and there's less jumping around (although still some) within a given segment.

So that's that. Santiago flirts with communism in his youth before settling into a lower-class, more or less dissolute existence. Ambrosio is part of various efforts to suppress dissidents, and also commits various crimes, though things are pretty ambiguous. His wife, Amalia, also plays a large role. Then there are the government officials: Santiago's father and others, but most notably Cayo Bermúdez, the minister of security. They plan out how to suppress and manage resistance to the government, and--cynically amusing, this--how to make themselves look legitimate by appearing to be in line with what "outside observers" (mainly the US) want to see in terms of democracy. The second half in particular is in large part concerned with Bermúdez's mistress, Hortensia, and her downfall and eventual murder. As you would guess, this all plays out in very non-linear format.

So it's a very ambitious book, and pretty darned compelling throughout most of it (though the political stuff can be a bit of a drag). I would definitely put it above The War of the End of the World. But boy, is it not a cheerful novel. Vargas Llosa wants to indict Peruvian society of the time, its corruption and the way it oppressed and destroyed people, and he does, to perhaps an almost infeasible extent. One ends up kind of annoyed with--about--Santiago, who, in spite of living a very financially precarious life with his wife, willfully refuses any of his inheritance, not for any ideological reasons that we ever see, but just...because Vargas Llosa wants to make a point, is my suspicion. When your characters act in perverse ways to demonstrate thematic things...not such a good idea, is my thinking. "I'll never understand you," his brother asks, near the very end. "What the devil do you want out of life? Why do you to everything you can to fuck yourself up all by yourself?" To which comes the singularly unsatisfying reply: "Because I'm a masochist."

Eh. It's pretty nihilistic in the end, and I'm not quite as edified as I might have hoped. I'll read more of Vargas Llosa, but I hope I can find something by him that's a little more balanced.


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