Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dictatorship of Greed and Depravity: A Review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Feast of the Goat”

The recent popular uprising against Egypt’s long time dictator Hosni Mubarak reminded me of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Feast of the Goat, about The Dominican Republic’s long time dictator Rafael Trujillo. The similarities between the two dictatorships is crystal clear: Greed, an obsession with power and control, kleptomania of the dictator and his inner circle, brutal suppression of the people by the secret police and military, and the unwavering support of the U.S. government. In Trujillo’s case things got so bad that he was assassinated, ending a thirty-one year dictatorship that left the Dominican Republic in shambles.

Vargas Llosa’s novel begins with the return to the Dominican Republic of Urania Cabral, the daughter of a member of Trujillo’s inner circle. “Urania. Her parents had done her no favor; her name suggested a planet, a mineral, anything but the slender, fine-featured woman with burnished skin and large, dark, rather sad eyes who looked back at her from the mirror. Urania! What an idea for a name. Fortunately nobody called her that anymore; now it was Uri, Miss Cabral, Ms. Cabral, Dr. Cabral.”

Why has she returned to Santo Domingo when once she had said she would never in this life or the next return? To visit her father, whom she hasn’t seen, spoken with or written to since she left at age fourteen for a private school in Michigan.

“He awoke paralyzed by a sense of catastrophe… At last he managed to stretch his hand toward the bedside table where he kept the revolver and the loaded sub-machine gun. But instead of a weapon he grasped the alarm clock.” Thus we are introduced to the glorious dictator, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo as he awakens early one morning. His mind scrolls back through his life, examines in detail his wife, his ne’er do well sons Ramfis and Radham├ęs, his conquests, his wealth, the men of his inner circle (the ingrates), and his aged body that refuses to perform as before. Reading, my mind flashed on Kim Jong-Il, North Korea’s longtime self-obsessed ruler. The similarities between dictators are endless.

No one was secure in Trujillo’s sick world. Remaining a member of his inner circle was deliberately not easy; at any moment, on a whim, one could find oneself tossed aside like a used piece of toilet tissue. If you were an attractive young woman, or had a pretty daughter, you’d best keep her out of Trujillo’s sight, or he will pluck her for a night of “dancing” that will leave her in ruins and your position in no better shape. Sexually obsessed, he equated his virility with the nation’s health, he thrived on deflowering young maidens, considering it a blessing they had better thank him for.

When people finally had enough, they plotted his assassination, which occurred on May 30, 1961. The outcome, however, was not to be what they hoped for, as there was no swift recovery. “The Goat” might be dead, but his aura lingered on.

The Feast of the Goat is spellbinding. Simply stated, it is one of the best novels I have read in years.

An easy *****

Friday, February 18, 2011

A glass of sherry, pleasant evening kind of read

Margery Allingham's Mr. Albert Campion was her best-loved character. I remember watching him the PBS Mystery! series eons ago as one of my favorites. I have to admit that until my friend Paul Bauck sent me a box of mysteries with this one in it, I have never read one of her novels. Much the pity.

Mr. Campion's Quarry, co-authored by Youngman Carter and copyrighted in 1970 four years after her death, reminds me of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey -- refined, cultured upper class dabbling in sleuthing and darned good at it. The kind of book to be read after dinner with a fire going in the fireplace, a glass of sherry and a biscuit or two. A delightful British whodunit whether read or watched.

Delightfully, it's available at from their resellers, from $0.01 for used copies (really, that's the price), $4.99 for hard cover, and $2.96 for mass market paperback, which is what I have.

I give this book *****

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Revolution in a Rat Colony: A review of Brendan Gisby’s “The Island of Whispers”

Reminiscent of Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Brendan Gisby’s novel is a mesmerizing tale of conquest, enslavement and yearning for a life of freedom from oppression and want.

Set in Scotland in an ancient ruined monastery on the island of Inchgarvie that was abandoned during the Middle Ages, “The Island of Whispers” tells the story of the conquest and subjugation of the island’s indigenous black rat population by much larger (cat-size larger) brown rats that arrived from passing ships. Enslaved, despised and abused by the brown rats, the black rats yearn for freedom and dream of founding a just society somewhere else. The ruling leadership will do anything to snuff it out and exterminate it.

Looking out from his island prison, Twisted Foot sees another land. How could they get there? Could it be a place where he, his mate and his child could have a free life? What about Fat One, Small Face and Long Ears? Would they be interested? And Grey Eyes, Soft-Mover and Bone-Cruncher? They would have to be very, very careful to avoid the sharp eyes and ears of the Protectors and the Inner Circle. Eventually, taking Slayer, the Slave King who escapes during a slave revolt that the authorities brutally put down, they leave the island for their freedom.

What happens then? Does their last? Does it grow? Are Twisted Foot, Fat One and their friends able to establish the just society they were dreaming of? You’ll have to read the book to find that out, which – unless you hate rats – shouldn’t be a problem, as it’s a can’t-put-it-down kind of read.

This rat tale is a wonderfully told story of the yearning to be free that’s in every person’s heart. It’s a story that is as ancient as history, and as current as today’s news. Inchgarvie could be Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, North Korea, apartheid South Africa, Israel, the U.S., Argentina during the military junta, Chile during Pinochet’s rule, Myanmar, the company you work for … wherever people are kept down, marginalized, despised, and ignored. Reading it, I kept thinking about Israel’s treatment of both its Arab citizens and the Arabs in the Occupied Territories and Gaza, which has been under a near lock-down siege since June 2007.

Pick up a copy of The Island of Whispers in either paperback or Kindle. It’s available from and 

Will there be a sequel to this story? I certainly hope so.

I give it *****