Survival Of The Fittest

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Until the rise of Fidel Castro, the longest running dictator in the Caribbean league was Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the undisputed ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Those were the glamour years for tin-pot tyrants, and Trujillo did his best (or worst) to epitomize the pre-Castro stereotype. His uniforms were the spiffiest, his medals the most splendiferous and his enemies the most fearful. He was hailed as God's gift to the nation and was its unchallenged alpha male--the First Phallus of the Republic.

The Trujillo transposed in Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Feast of the Goat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 404 pages; $25) is heartless and uncannily shrewd, a man whose political instincts and outsize lust were the twin pillars of his power. But personality goes only so far in maintaining authority. Vargas Llosa's scenes of official murder and sanctioned torture are fulsome enough to have been written by the other Mario, the late best-selling author Mario Puzo. Like the father of The Godfather, the Peru-born Vargas Llosa has a talent for the graphic. There are no horses' heads or garrotings, but Trujillo's thugs have their ways: "Between sessions in the electric chair, they dragged him, naked, to a damp cell...To keep him from sleeping they taped his lids to his eyebrows..." You would not want to push the comparison much further, except to say that both authors have a knack for turning Darwin into harrowing fiction.

Earlier Vargas Llosa novels such as The City and the Dogs (survival of the fittest at a Peruvian boys' school, published in 1963) and Conversation in the Cathedral (entrenched corruption in Lima, 1969) foreshadow the harsh realism of this latest book. There are two main story lines. One is the sorrowful history of the Trujillo era, ending with his assassination. The other is the tale of Urania Cabral, a handsome New York City lawyer who returns to the Dominican Republic after a 30-year absence to visit her dying father and exorcise her demons.

Cabral grounds the novel in intimate experience. Trujillo charges the narrative with his malignity. He was an avid racial cleanser. In 1937 he ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians who settled on the wrong side of the border between the two countries. His murderous chief of police, Johnny Abbes, made sure that the Republic had the best-fed sharks in the Caribbean. "A toad in body and soul," Abbes would be the novel's vilest character were it not for Trujillo's son Ramfis, a playboy known abroad for his affairs with Hollywood stars and at home for raping schoolgirls. Vargas Llosa plants Trujillo securely in his time and place, but the book's dictator also crosses temporal and physical boundaries to remind us that tyranny remains the source of Latin America's best fiction. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, The Feast of the Goat confirms Balzac's observation that the novel is the private history of nations.