I must admit that I got off to a rocky start with Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral: after a dachshund is brutally clubbed to death in Chapter One1 and a woman gets drugged and sexually assaulted in Chapter Two (by, moreover, sympathetic characters who don't ever seem quite to grasp the offensiveness of their actions), I was feeling a mite unfriendly toward the novel. By Chapter Three, though, I was reluctantly softening my stance, and by Chapter Four I was fully immersed in Vargas Llosa's unusual but compelling narrative voice. What won me over? It certainly wasn't a cessation of the brutality in this tale of disillusionment and corruption in 1950s Peru, although the sexual politics did redeem themselves somewhat. What really tipped the scales and had me devouring Vargas Llosa's novel in 100-page chunks was its unique combination of compelling storyline and experimental narration style. Vargas Llosa does something with his storytelling here that I've never exactly encountered before, and it's a technique I found both exciting and effective.
Like many novels in which the main character(s) are looking back and attempting to untangle events of the past, Conversation in the Cathedral is multi-layered in its presentation. Within the first chapter we get a sketch of everything that happens in the book's present day (early 1960s): disillusioned newspaper columnist Santiago Zavala goes to fetch his dog at the pound, encounters an older man named Ambrosio who once worked for Santiago's father, and the two go for an extended talking-and-drinking session in a nearby dive bar. At the end of Chapter One, Santiago, now falling-down drunk, initiates an angry confrontation with Ambrosio about some event in their mutual past, but Ambrosio denies responsibility. Santiago then stumbles home with his dog, and promises his wife that he won't stay out drinking without calling her again.
That's the extent of the present-day action, which is over in the first 20 pages. Throughout the rest of the 600-page novel, we get multi-layered, multi-voiced flashbacks reaching back to the years before dictator Manuel Odria's 1948 rise to power, when Santiago was an idealistic, upper-middle-class high school student preparing to enter San Marcos University. Gradually, of course, the reader begins to piece together the relationships surrounding Santiago and Ambrosio, and just what happened to cause the dynamics seen in the opening chapter. What sets Conversation in the Cathedral apart from most other flashback-to-the-past, multiple-voiced novels I've read is that any given passage, from one sentence to the next, can see-saw among three or four different scenes, taking place not just between different sets of people but at radically different times. The result is a sometimes-challenging but always compelling juxtaposition. In extreme cases, Vargas Llosa's technique can look like the following passage, which features four different scenes layered on top of each other: Santiago and Ambrosio's rehashing of the past in the present-day Cathedral bar; an early-1950 political rally in support of the Odríist candidate Emilio Arévalo, staffed by strong-man Trifulcio; a mid-1950 conversation among the now-Senator Arévalo, Senator Landa, and Santiago's father Don Fermín about the rigging of the recent elections and the increasing political power of Presidential favorite Cayo Bermúdez; and a police "interrogation" carried out by two of Ambrosio's sometime-colleagues, hired thugs Hipólito and Ludovico, sometime in the early 1950s.
"I'm not being nosy, but why did you run away from home that time, son?" Ambrosio asks. "Weren't you well off at home with your folks?"
Don Emilio Arévalo was sweating; he was shaking the hands that converged on him from all sides, he wiped his forehead, smiled, waved, embraced the people on the platform, and the wooden frame swayed as Don Emilio approached the steps. Now it was your turn, Trifulcio.
"Too well off, that's why I left," Santiago says. "I was so pure and thick-headed that it bothered me having such an easy life and being a nice young boy.
"The funny thing is that the idea of putting him in jail didn't come from the Uplander," Don Fermín said. "Or from Arbeláez or Ferro. The one who convinced them, the one who insisted was Bermúdez."
"So pure and thick-headed that I thought that by fucking myself up a little I would make myself a real little man, Ambrosio," Santiago says.
"That all of it was the work of an insignificant Director of Public Order, an underling, I can't swallow either," Senator Landa said. "Uplander Espina invented it so he could toss the ball to someone else if things turned out badly."
Trifulcio was there, at the foot of the stairs, defending his place with his elbows, spitting on his hands, his gaze fanatically fastened on Don Emilio's feet, which were approaching, mixed in with others, his body tense, his feet firmly planted on the ground: his turn, it was his turn.
"You have to believe it because it's the truth," Don Fermín said. "And don't tar him so much. Whether you like it or not, that underling is becoming the man the General trusts the most."
"There he is, Hipólito, I'm making a present of him to you," Ludovico said. "Get those ideas of being headman out of his brain once and for all."
"Then it wasn't because you had different political ideas from your papa?" Ambrosio asks.
"He believes him implicitly, he thinks he's infallible," Don Fermín said. "When Bermúdez has an opinion, Ferro, Arbeláez, Espina and even I can go to the devil, we don't exist. That was evident in the Montagne affair."
"My poor old man didn't have any political ideas," Santiago says. "Only political interests, Ambrosio."
I know this is a very extended quote, but it takes some time to get into the swing of what Vargas Llosa can do with this kind of staggered, syncopated dialogue. Like a choreographer working with four groups of dancers on stage simultaneously, he subtly shifts the focus from one to another of the four scenes, while still keeping all of them in motion at once. Even in the (relatively) short segment above, one can see the focus shifting slightly from Santiago/Ambrosio to the conversation among the senators and back again, like the intermittent interference that happens when a listener drives along the boundary between two radio stations broadcasting on the same frequency.
Together, these four threads become more than the sum of their parts: not only is there an aesthetically affecting rhythm to their interplay, but the immediate juxtaposition of different characters and times is an interesting way to bring out the novel's themes. Here, for example, we have two competing analyses of the political events: on one station, there is Santiago's disgust with his father's opportunism and with his own youthful self-righteousness; while on the other, we get Don Fermín's self-interested but pragmatic play-by-play assessment of the unfolding political scene. At the same time, like palimpsests over which these conversations are layered, are the two scenes of action, of real-life cause and effect, which I visualize as sandwiching the senators' conversation: the lead-up to the elections they're discussing, and the stark reality of police brutality and oppression under the Odría regime.
So too, we get the juxtaposition of two father/son pairs: Trifulcio the thug is Ambrosio's father, so a second filial dynamic is present, echoing the dominant theme established by Santiago and Don Fermín. Conversation in the Cathedral has much interesting commentary to offer on the class dynamics of Peruvian society, and we can see some of that coming out here: Santiago, with the bourgeois background he spends the entire novel trying to escape, has nonetheless the privileged person's sense of entitlement: he feels betrayed by the person he has discovered his father to be, and he holds that against the man's memory because he feels he somehow "deserves" a father different from the one he got. Ambrosio, on the other hand, is remarkably free from bitterness, despite Trifulcio being a much more negligent and immoral father to him than Don Fermín was to Santiago. (Santiago's statement that his father "didn't have any political ideas, only political interests" is ironic given how much truer it is when applied to Ambrosio's father rather than his own.)
Moreover, throughout their entire conversation, Ambrosio reinforces rather than questions the emphasis on the Santiago/Don Fermín relationship: while the two bar patrons discuss both their lives, Ambrosio seems to have had more of a relationship with Santiago's father than he had with Trifulcio, and is invested in defending his former employer to the man's son. This continues to be true despite a number of narrative reveals later in the book (the circumstances of Trifulcio's eventual death; details about the dynamic between Don Fermín and Ambrosio) which might lead a reader to assume Ambrosio would have his own axe to grind with Don Fermín. Ambrosio, though, has been trained not to question his own status as a secondary player on the stage of life; he doesn't believe he deserves any particular treatment or quality of life. These issues of class hierarchy and feelings of entitlement are in turn reflected in the senators' discussion of the commoner Cayo Bermúdez, whose social standing earns their contempt but whose influential role in the President's inner circle commands their fear and respect. Meanwhile, on the other ends of the class and paternity spectrums, menial laborer Trinidad López is being beaten to death by Odría's and Bermúdez's goons just as he is about to become a father himself.
Obviously, it would be easy to write about Conversation in the Cathedral all night: its epic scope and unusual presentation make for a rich, thought-provoking ride. Long story short, I'm glad my reading buddies provided me with the motivation to stick with this book through the initial off-putting chapters, since Vargas Llosa's overall humanity and impressive writing chops more than made up for them in the end.
1I admit to being a little over-sensitive to the issue of animal brutality, particularly since my dog happens also to be a dachshund and a former stray just like the one that gets clubbed to death in Chapter One of Conversation in the Cathedral. Graphic cruelty toward animals is a huge turnoff for me, even if it's a realistic depiction intended to demonstrate the desperation of the people perpetrating said cruelty. To be fair, I believe this scene has a valid rationale behind it: it shows in a visceral way that Ambrosio has fallen to the bottom of the employment barrel, and has to choose between starvation and doing a job that's horrific and dehumanizing. As we find out later, Ambrosio doesn't even seem to believe that he deserves control over his own life or body; he can't be expected to believe in that right when applied to a dog. Still, it was upsetting to me out of proportion with what I believe Vargas Llosa intended. Which is a little bit funny considering that Ambrosio also works as a thug beating up humans, and that doesn't bother me at all. I suppose we all have our triggers.
Conversation in the Cathedral was the March pick for the Wolves reading group; please join us the last weekend of April for a discussion of Paul Glennon's The Dodecahedron, or Frames for a Frame.