‘Conversation in the Cathedral’ by Mario Vargas Llosa (1969)

by Jaime Grijalba.

This originally appeared in my weekly column for Wonders in the Dark.

Wow, it’s been a long time since I last did one of these reviews for Wonders in the Dark, and maybe there are many out there who either don’t remember or don’t know what I’m talking about. Well, the thing is that back all the way in the year 2010 a certain latinamerican writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that man is the peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. You can read my different reactions to the prize and his previous work in earlier installments of this series, but the thing is that I approached Sam Juliano asking if he’d be interested in me writing about the novels and fiction that Llosa wrote and made him a famous and lauded writer, and even if I had some grudges here and there about his political views, some about his own writing voice and then style of writing, but at the end of the day I was praising to high heavens his first novels ‘The Time of the Hero’ and ‘The Green House’, of course, with some reservations, but don’t we all have some of our own? Anyway, time has come for me to finally tell you: yes, this is the one, this is the novel, if there was one work in his entire career that would make him worthy of the Nobel Prize and at the same time a book that I would recommend to anyone who is reading these words, is this one. Hell, I’d even tell you to stop reading right now, get it in your local library, buy it off Amazon.com, download it illegaly, whatever it takes for you to go right now and start reading the over 700 pages of literary brilliance that are waiting for you at the turn of the page. But, I would be lazy if I didn’t actually review it, or at least share a few reasons as to why I think that this particular novel is so good. Well, might as well do it.

So, I’ve mentioned previously how infuriated and actually mad I was about certain things that Mario Vargas Llosa has said in the past few years, and that is regarding his new political views that have blindsided him into thinking that anything that would improve the economic liberties is the greatest thing that mankind has ever known as well as anything that is considered communism in the slightest is the easiest pathway to damnation (hell, even a little bit of left leaning democratic center parties are evil to him), mainly because of how he criticizes and condemns different governments just on the basis of their political beliefs and longings, while other countries that are down in the drain in terms of education, energy and overall what-the-fuck-we-sold-our-biggest-national-investment-for-two-cents-to-the-americans-what-the-fuck (of course I’m talking about Chile and the government of Sebastián Piñera, whom he supported during the campaign and has since then continue to support his views, no matter how strong and loud the student movements were nor how harsh and politically wrong as well as demeaning to the human rights were the treats towards the indigene population to the south of Chile. Even if he seems like he knows what he’s talking about, he actually doesn’t, and while I can keep blaming and criticizing him for what he says, I can say one thing for sure: he sure knows fascism, he wrote a book about it, the best god-damn book of all time about fascism, I’m sure about it. Here you find all that is rotten and wrong about that political right-wing thinking, everything that it supposes and means, it’s a work that constantly tells you that there is a wound in your arm, that it’s getting nasty and infected, but you can’t clean it, and then shoves your nose right into the pus and bacteria that is eating away your arm… that is fascism in a government, that was the dictatorship of Odria in Peru, those are the dictatorships in LatinAmerica, that is the regime that the economical powers want to have to keep us under control.

Odria was a militar dictator that Peru had in the late-40′s until the early 50′s, he came unto power by taking control of the house of government that at the time was under the presidency of the APRA, a political party that was of certain democratic-liberal-left-leaning ideology, but the main fact was that it was democratic, and you can’t never have democracy in Peru for a long time if your military is discontent with what they have at the moment. Anyway, as any dictatorship, here you find corruption, murder, torture, dissapartions, exile, repression, forbidings, fear and overall nastyness all around the cities of Peru, from the capital Lima (where most of the action happens) to the far north and far east of the country, and here Vargas Llosa has managed to write as if he had lived in all those places, with the accents and the little quirks present here and there about how people in Peru speak, how the government has its own language regarding the insurgence, how the insurgence speaks about the government, how the words and phrases practically construct the reasons behind the events that eventually happen in this particular novel. It all starts with our protagonist, Santiago, who works at a newspaper in what has been regarded as one of the best novel-openers of all time, where he asks himself ‘when did Peru went to shit?’ as he starts remembering all the things that he did as a young man in Peru during the dictatorship of Odria, as he goes home and finds out that his dog wsa taken by two people from the dog-pound, he goes there and as he finds his little dog he also finds Ambrosio working there. Ambrosio was the driver of Santiago’s father for a long time, and with time we will start to know much more about the relation between all these characters as they go to a place called ‘The Cathedral’ to speak, they speak for 4 hours, and while not all that we read is what they spoke about (it would be impossible to them to know certain stuff) their conversation is what brings forward all the past and how it connects to the present of Peru, there the different characters move around taking advantage of the recollection of two people to tell their own stories about how the fascism was what sent Peru to the shit-hole again and again as years went by.

We get to know Santiago’s origins as a son from a wealthy family, and as the usual story goes, he starts to find an interest in liberalism and communism, but not just because to infuriate his father, but mainly because of a sentimental reason: a beautiful woman enters the university with him and he inmediatly falls in love with her, and her beliefs sway him into investigating and thinking in the political sense. Does he really get convinced regarding the social justice that means the political communist thinking? We never know, we never enter that particular state of his mind, and that is perfect for a movie that is trying to show us how the particular facet of fascism simply overshadows and silences the personal opinion of those who are living in that state for a long time and just find out recently another kind of political thinking, are they really changed? Maybe yes, maybe not, and that state of never knowing if its right what you are thinking is something so akin towards the sense of overall fascism that permeates every corner of the novel, that I can’t help but applaud those moments of silence that the narrator simply denies to tell us what a certain character is thinking, just because it would be dangerous to think it, and that leads to many surprises and twists, something that in the book abounds, and I’m having a hard time trying to not spoil a thing that would prevent its full shock and at the same time enjoyment of just how well placed is every plot point in the whole endeavour.

The novel, again, seems a bit over-stylized, but this time (au contraire to what happened in ‘The Green House’) the actual style of the writing and presentation of the points, characters and the mixing of time periods, dialogues, events and changes of narration styles or characters are more cleverly designed in a sense that you are never confused as to who is who doing what at what moment, and of course it needs attention, but you really can’t think of reading a novel like this as if it was light-hearted literature, this is something that requires reflection, as it wasn’t until later into the novel that the whole cast of characters and events presented were a demonstration of the evils and scourge of fascism to the governments and the people of a country, specially in how the relation between master and servant is fascist in itself and how harsh it was (forced and abusive) at that time where everything was a bit more ‘permissive’ if I may use that word in that particular case, or even the relation between the different political charges inside the government itself, how the figure of Cayo Bermúdez (a civilian called by a military in the government to help him in controlling the constant bursts of revolution and resillience towards the dictatorship) and how he slowly but surely starts to take control of the issues of the ministery, climbing up, putting chasers behind former government agents, being an all-knowing figure that knew all that happened in every place of Peru before it even happened, and in some way being more powerful than the president/dictator himself, now of course his figure is fictionalized, as we take a close glimpse to his life and specially his relation with a woman, but at the same time he is based on a civilian ministry that at one moment was kicked out when a revolution couldn’t be avoided and there were some dead people, a event that is described in such a big and nervous detail that it becomes the epitome moment of how sometimes fascism can be blind about their fascetiousness and prehensions of knowing everything.

The novel completes its sides by having different narrators and events that happen and change as the time progresses, finding issues with pregnancy, homosexuality, rape, murder, torture, hideouts, illegal agrupations, communism and above all a sense that nothing has changed, as much as Cayo Bermúdez may leave the government, things won’t change, and things in Peru haven’t changed, there’s still great amounts of corruption like the ones hinted at here in the novel, and while I may seem a bit hypocrite when I criticize the government of a country when Llosa does the same thing, I must say that I’m just replicating the recent history of that beautiful and brother country that is Peru, I wish that they could be better in the future, that they can surge, and some day be a great nation, in the meantime, as a recent saying in Chile says: ‘we are in the division B’, Peru and Chile are in bad shape, and well, fascism is to blame, a history of recent fascism can fuck up a country really good, and this novel chronicles that sense of desesperation and at the same time a longing for a better way of the things to be, but you know that’s how things were in the 50′s, how were seen in the 70′s and still are now. Can we some day really be better? I know the day Peru went to shit, Santiago knew it, was that day that also all Latin America and then the whole world went to shit? Maybe.

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Next: ‘Captain Pantoja and the Special Service’


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