Mario Vargas Llosa sure likes his city dogs. As the monumental “Conversation in the Cathedral” opens, rabid dogs roam the streets of Lima, Peru, the canine manifestation of a national malaise. Santiago Zavala is an reporter from an upper-middle class family, cranking out editorial columns on the mismanagement of the rabies outbreak. When his little dog, Rowdy, gets snatched by dog-pound sanitation officials seeking to fill a quota, Zavala sets out on a rescue mission that leads to a re-encounter with Ambrosio, an old chauffeur of the Zavala family, and then to an epic conversation at “La Catedral”- which, despite its lofty name, is not a house of a prayer but a den of thieves too drunk to indulge in thievery.
That drunken, modernistic “conversation” covers several years in the history of Peru, namely the early ’50s: the presidency/dictatorship of Manuel Odria, a right-wing populist who, had he been Argentinian and female, might have gotten a stirring ballad in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
The model here is “Absalom, Absalom!” I’m not sure how it is that William Faulkner got to exert such a strong influence in the so-called Latin Boom of the ’60s and 70s, and particularly in Vargas Llosa, who has said Faulkner was the first writer he’d read “with pencil and paper in hand,” taking notes on the protean architecture. I suspect it might have to do with the fact that, once you translate Faulkner to Spanish and aren’t as distracted by the regionalisms and dialects, the structural wonder of his effects becomes even more apparent, the shifting lay-out of his chronology and point-of-view becomes clearer to the critical view. This isn’t to say that Faulkner GAINS from translation; no one does. But at least he’s undiminished by it. (I’m not sure the same is true for Vargas-Llosa. More than once, encountering an awkward sentence in the English translation, my mind tried to dig through to the superior Spanish sentence underneath.)
Vargas Llosa keeps switching his modernistic devices from chapter to chapter, as suits the content and personages. The most memorable trick involves his interlaced, alternating paragraphs, so that a chapter might go like:
and just when you’ve got your bearings…
Condensed and simplified, here’s how the effect works:
The dog ran after the cat.
The soldier lifted his gun.
“Are you sure you want to eat that?”
The cat slid under the table.
“Why not? Everyone else is doing it!”
The dog growled.
Blood oozed from the bullet wounds.
She bit down hard.
Fangs tearing at the tail.
He’d done his soldierly duty and there was only one thing he could think of saying.
“That was the best cupcake EVER!”
That continuous mental displacement could have been reason enough for throwing a book violently into a conveniently located fire-place, if Vargas Llosa wasn’t so in control of his characters that you’re never (too) confused once you catch on. Class tags language, so that you always know when it’s time for soldiers or students or servants to speak up. The “lower classes,” for instance, view the world in a simplified, direct, almost cinematic syntax that creates a great line like: “She went to open the door and Don Fermín’s face.” That’s a neat jump over unnecessary words! This isn’t an inferior world view; it has distinct advantages over: “She went to open the door and after she did so, she saw Don Fermín standing there, and she was surprised by the expression in his face.” Simpler doesn’t mean dumber.
Everything is elegantly constructed in this cathedral: the nave of the past leads to the transepts where the lives of Santiago and Ambrosio intercept. Beyond lies the revelation of the altar – also known as the sanctuary. (“Sanctuary” is also a novel by Faulkner. COINCIDENCE? Almost certainly.)
From salt-of-the-earth maids to doomed traviatas to cirrhotic journalists; from corrupt military maneuvers to tentative Communist Party meetings; from universities to brothels ( a favored Vargas-Llosa setting) – “Conversation in the Cathedral” touches on almost every strata of Peruvian society. It’s a winged old man short of being as epochal as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
RATING: COOL! (Might have been a ‘MASTERPIECE!!!’ if I had read it in the original.)
Rating systems are crap. HOWEVER, I’m putting mine into effect from here on out. Yes, those exclamation marks belong there.
EEWWW!!! If you encounter this book, you have my permission to go all “Fahrenheit 451” on it. An insult to literacy.
SHRUG: Mediocre book, but no major grammar mistakes or anything. Possibly involving sparkling vampires.
GOOD ENOUGH: This is the standard. A good, well-crafted read. It might have extra charms for fans of its particular genre.
COOL!: Loved this, had a blast reading it, definitely recommended if it sounds at all up your alley.
MASTERPIECE!!!: A classic, this book changed my life, took over my days and nights, what is WRONG WITH YOU, why won’t you read this?!?
This mocking line from the 1969 novel:
“Now it turns out that Odría is noble.” Don Fermín laughed. “Did you read ‘El Comercio’? He’s the descendant of barons, and so forth, and if he wants to, he can claim his title.”
Young Varguitas had no idea that 32 years later he would be raised to nobility by the King of Spain. He is now the 1st Marquis de Vargas-Llosa.