Part of the horror of George Orwell's "1984" lay in its vision of rationalism and technology, the pride of European civilization, turned to the service of brutal authoritarianism. Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel of the Dominican Republic's Trujillo regime, "The Feast of the Goat," reminds us that throughout most of history tyranny has worn an all too human face -- and that it always shows us the dark aspect of our most prized qualities. For Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian novelist with political inclinations (he made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency of his homeland in 1990, losing to the the would-be tyrant Alberto Fujimori), the Latin American variety of dictatorship is the manifestation of a hallowed cultural institution: machismo. Never has a novel drawn the malignant political potential of crude, unfettered masculinity more ferociously.
The book begins in the capital of Santo Domingo in 1996, with the arrival of an unforgiving judge of the nation's past, Urania Cabral, estranged daughter of General Rafael Trujillo's former secretary of state, Agustmn. An official of the World Bank, she comes bearing a degree from Harvard Law School and the name of the Greek muse of astronomy, but the cold, Northern eye she trains on the land she left 35 years earlier conceals a heart filled with implacable rage. The passages describing her visit to her silent, decrepit, despised father alternate with accounts of the last day of Trujillo's life in May 1961, told both from the perspective of "the Benefactor" and that of the assassins who wait for him at the side of a highway.
The events of this day allow Vargas Llosa to introduce all the major players in the regime, from the pudgy, sinister Johnny Abbes, head of military intelligence and Trujillo's dirtiest enforcer, to the mild-mannered puppet president, Joaqumn Balaguer, a man the general considers to be "an intellectual lacking in ambition." Likewise, the author sketches each of the conspirators as they prepare to ambush Trujillo's car on its weekly journey to the ranch where the general arranges to bed any Dominican woman who happens to catch his fancy. There's a disillusioned young guardsman who gave up his fiancée on Trujillo's orders and was later tricked into killing her brother; there's a military man whose brother was killed by Abbes in a coverup, and so on.
The structure, set up to deliver great globs of exposition, is a bit clunky, and the book isn't helped by Edith Grossman's wooden and often inept translation, but once the action starts, it reaches a breakneck momentum. What keeps the early parts of the novel percolating is Vargas Llosa's portrait of Trujillo, who, at the age of 70, can't seem to distinguish between the state of the nation and the condition of his own penis. Nothing fills him with greater apprehension than his failing bladder control and the possibility of a shameful trouser stain, and nothing can restore his faith in his own power as quickly as the idea of exercising his nationwide droit du seigneur. He particularly enjoys screwing his advisors' wives and then bragging about it afterward in public.
Trujillo's notion of governance is so sexualized that he makes the famous playboy Porfirio Rubirosa part of his military adjunct because the general considers him "a walking cock who spurted ambition," and besides, "what better propaganda for the Dominican Republic than a cocksman like him?" His doubts about his own sons' leadership abilities are hopelessly entangled with his suspicion that they're insufficiently heterosexual. But the general's sons do share his unquenchable need to dominate and humiliate other men, from the ministers Trujillo likes to keep in a state of perpetual insecurity until they behave "like women in a harem competing to be the favorite," to the "courtiers" that his son Ramfis forces to shave their legs and "make themselves up like old queens." Backing up these and the rest of Trujillo's commands is the ubiquitous Abbes, with his repertoire of tortures and a shark-infested grotto to dispose of any inconvenient evidence. Such measures aren't always necessary, though. So mesmerizing is Trujillo's alpha-male will that at the moment of truth, one key conspirator finds himself unable to act.
In the end, though, Trujillo falls, and the nation is salvaged by the man the general accuses of lacking "a man's natural appetites." Vargas Llosa's account of Balaguer's apotheosis is a tour de force depiction of political skill. By the time he steps in, the reader -- like the Dominicans, battered and hypnotized by Trujillo's spectacular bullying -- has almost forgotten that authority doesn't always have to take the form of crushing force. There's more than one way to be a man, Vargas Llosa intimates, and much better ways to run a nation.