Conversation in the Cathedral, by Mario Vargas Llosa

I have read 150 pages of this 600-page novel from 1969, and I am not sure I shall continue. I have read much of Vargas Llosa, and have done so because I have enjoyed and esteemed his work. But not this one, which many call his greatest work.

My problem is that I believe that Vargas Llosa is trying here to convey history in the form of fiction. That he does not care about his characters. That they exist only to convey his portrait of corruption, cruelty, and incompetence in the Peru of the 1950s.

 But history should not be the purpose of fiction. The purpose should be to explore and reveal the hearts and souls of his characters through their personal interactions. Their primary motivation should concern the love, the hatred, the dependence, the need that prompts the actions of the characters.

Now, I recognize that mine is an old-fashioned approach to literature. When I believe that a novelist should begin with character, then with a story about the relationships among these characters, then with the social setting in which the characters act, and finally with the style that most effectively conveys those three objectives.

But Vargas Llosa has approached this work using the reverse order. What distinguishes this novel the most is the manner in which he portrays the two social movements that drive the beginning of this work. The first movement is a world of youth, of rebellious youth, at the university. Its lead character is Santiago, the confused, searching son of a wealthy man, Don Fermin. The second group is comprised of military and civilian leaders who run this Peruvian dictatorship of the 1950s.

Some might trace the stylistic manner of this novel to Joyce or Faulkner, but even that is elusive. For what Vargas Llosa has done here is interweave into a single paragraph multiple time zones and multiple conversations—with no typographic indications of that a conversation between two characters, such as the title conversation Santiago has with the chauffer throughout the book, is overlapping with a conversation among government leaders who are plotting against Santiago’s student friends.

It seems to me that Vargas Llosa may have emphasized the manner of his telling precisely because his major purpose is the political story he is telling of the two societies. That he recognizes that a history lesson is not going to work as literature, and so he turns to this unique literary technique. But technique does not work for me, nor does history, as a source of literary success.

I have now skipped ahead 50 pages to Part 2. The narrative technique has changed, moving now from complete scene to complete scene, from character to character, every two or three pages. The story is now easier to follow, since there is no jumping back and forth in time and among the characters within a single paragraph. (Or almost none.)

There are three basic stories to follow. There is Amelia with Ambrosio the chauffeur, and with the boss’s mistresses. There is Ambrosio dealing with his boss, and the bosses’ other aides. And there is the maneuvering among the top members of the government.

But there are still no characterizations to make these dozen or so characters memorable. They do not react to one another. They react only to the situation they are in. With a sense of helplessness. And so it is still difficult to follow the story, which appears to center on the impact on these characters of an intended revolution.

Part 3 introduces a new narrative strategy. Now, it advances the story by means of four episodes, each the length of a chapter. First, we follow Santiago as he is assigned by his paper to report on the murder of Hortensia, the mistress of Don Cayo, the brutal strong man behind the dictator. Then we follow a revolt against the dictator, and how Don Cayo maneuvers to put it down. Next, we return to Amelia, and through her winess Hortensia’s downfall. And finally, we follow a revolt in Arequipa, and the government’s bungling, resulting in its fall and the exile of Don Cayo.

Here, it is much easier to follow the narrative than in the previous parts, even though the chapters do not appear in chronological order. And interspersed in these chapters are moments from the future that explain or comment on the current events. This is a return to the multidimensional technique of the opening part, but here it is under control, and helps the reader’s understanding.

Part 4 becomes a blend of the previous narrative techniques. The narrative is presented in long takes, but there is a continouous change in perspective and going back and forth in time. The main characters are Santiago the reporter, Ambrosio the negro chauffeur, with whom Santiago is having a conversation (a conversation which began the novel, and continues throughout), Queta, the beautiful whore, plus the wife of Ambrosio and the soon-to-be wife of Santiago. There is no clear direction this narrative is going, especially because the events take place before the narrative in the earlier parts, such as the death of Hortensia and the aborted revolution. The emphasis is on the frustrations of both Santiago and Ambrosio in finding their role in society.

Meanwhile, it becomes more clear that Ambrosio is telling to Santiago the events in Santiago’s life. He is, of course, relating this information to the reader, but why is he telling Santiago what Santiago already knows? He is also narrating the events in his own life, which is much more understandable. This is the conversation in the cathedral, the cafe, of the novel’s title. But why? Why is this young author resorting to a technique that for me just doesn’t make sense? I have read later Vargas Llosa novels that I have enjoyed. But this one confuses me.

The novel winds down with the stories of Santiago and Ambrosio, their wives and family, their finances, and their eventual fate. But there is no connection to the political story of Peru. There is no explanation of the death of a significant character. Yes, one is implied, but neither Santiago nor the reader is certain. Life simply goes on for these characters. Which is perhaps a statement, but like the entire novel it contains no emotion, no irony, no sense of completeness. What is intended, it seems, is showing the hopelessness of these characters in determining their lives, in finding satisfaction and happiness. But this is a political statement, the one I cited at the beginning; it is not a literary achievement that is based on character.

Indeed, the finale of Part 4 focuses on the personal lives of the main characters, leaving behind the political story of Peru. Thus, many of its events here appear to have occurred before the events of the earlier Part 3. Moreover, Part 4’s focus on the personal relationships carries little of the scope, the significance of the earlier more political parts. In fact, their personal fates recall the manipulations of a soap opera.

On the other hand, the novel ends where the first chapter begins. We have come full circle. So in this sense, there need be no ending. The rest of the novel that we have read is the ending. However, it is still a letdown. It is not satisfying emotionally. At least, not until we begin to think about the entire novel. Perhaps even to reread it?

The best explanation of the novel I have read comes from Efrain Kristal: “The narrative axis of the novel is a four-hour conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio in a bar called La Catedral. Revolving around this conversation are many other conversations, stories, and situations. The encounter is accidental—Ambrosio has returned to Lima after many years of hiding from the law in the Peruvian provinces—but the conversation is pressing for both of them. Santiago wants to understand why Ambrosio loved his father, and Ambrosio wants to understand why Santiago has rejected his father. The conversation does not lead to an understanding between the two men, but when it concludes, the reader comes to terms with the world that shattered their aspirations.”

The political environment of this work is clear: the separation of the classes, the helplessness of the lower classes, the guilt of Santiago, the abuse of women, the ruthlessness of the dictatorship, etc. Rather, it is the style of telling that I cannot accommodate to, plus the inconclusiveness of the story. No, there is still the lack of emotion among the characters that I cited earlier. I do not feel them interacting with or affecting one another. There is too much coldness in the telling.

One reviewer comments that a second reading brings a much clearer understanding of the novel. Undoubtedly, this is true. One reason is that one can better grasp the sequence of events that are not told chronologically. And therefore one can better understand some characters’ actions. For example, a precise understanding of how and why Hortensia died as she did.

In the face of what seems to be overwhelming praise of this novel by the critics, I can respond only by reverting to the traditional values of literature. Character, emotion, and story. Whereas the heart of this novel is based on politics, not on character. Its characters are for me puppets being manipulated by the author. And the strings are the innovative technique that sacrifices individual cause and effect to an understanding of the political fates of these characters.

This work makes quite clear Vargas Llosa’s commitment to political and economic justice. It also makes more clear his later decision to campaign for the presidency of Peru. What troubles me is his sublimation of literary values to his political and economic message. Such a messages is valid in literature, but it should not be at the expense of the free interaction of the characters.

What also becomes clear is that my reaction to this work matches my reaction to such works as Three Trapped Tigers (Cabrera Infante), A Change of Skin (Fuentes), and The Obscene Bird of Night (Donoso). All broke the traditions of literature in search of a modern technique that searched behind surface reality.

Here is my evaluation of The Obscene Bird of Night: “This is a novel about writing, about the imagination, about the impossibility of turning the imaginary world into the real world—except in the mind of the author. So of course the people who will admire this work the most are writers themselves. And the critics who write about them. For such an approach speaks to both of them more than it does to the average reader.

“To sum up, this is a highly imaginative novel that sacrifices the warmth and humanity of its characters to the author’s exploration of his own imagination. For me, its originality is a marvelous achievement, but it is too committed to the complexity of art at the expense of conveying the complexity of life.”

The Time review concludes: “It would be a pity if the enormous but not insurmountable difficulties of reading this massive novel prevent readers from becoming acquainted with a book that reveals, as few other have, some of the ugly complexities of the real Latin America.”

My only reply is: what is the purpose of literature. Is it to create a political world, or a personal world? (March, 2014)


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

I have not read this 1880 novel for more than 60 years. Why return to it? Because I wanted to evaluate it from the literary perspective I have today. It is still a masterpiece, of course, but I now realize that the key to the novel lies in its initial words:

“Notice. Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Because, of course, this work is filled with a motive, a moral, and a plot. In fact, these factors reveal the purpose of the novel. Its motive is to contrast the good of following one’s conscience with the usual, and accepted,, behavior of society. Its moral is to reveal the hypocrisy of saying or believing one thing and doing another. And its plot is to entertain us while exposing us to the human contradictions in all of us.

Twain addresses most of these contradictions through the issue of slavery. But he also explores other varieties of human deceit: when Huck disguises himself as a girl, when Huck convinces Jim their separation was just a dream, when a family feud rises between two families whose individuals do not hate each other, when confidence men pretend to be royalty and then swindle their victims, and even when Huck pretends to be Tom. With each scene, Twain is playing with the contradictions between belief and reality, and between subjective morality and objective morality.

Many critics, including Hemingway, have objected to the final scenes with Tom Sawyer. And I did as well more than 60 years ago. But now I see those pages in a different light. I see them as a continuation of the contrast between what men choose to do and what men should do. In this case, Twain is in a way following Cervantes. He has Tom at the final rescue of Jim invoking, as his guidelines in the real world, not the rules of chivalry but the rules of the classic romances of literature. The novel’s conclusion thus continues the false reality theme which powers a major portion of the novel. And so Tom’s own false reality at the end belongs.

Now, I will grant that Twain exaggerates this false pretense of how to save Jim from his prison. If you accept the premise, however, the methods that Tom espouses are appropriate to free Jim. But I would argue that Twain does overdo it when Tom insists that Jim endure the rats, snakes, and spiders of those classic imprisonments.

However, Twain turns the tables on the reader (spoiler alert) when he explains why all of Tom’s exaggerated “rules” of escape were unnecessary. That is, in the real world. But not, still, of course, in Tom’s world.

The major impact of this book comes from its indictment of slavery. Even if its major purpose is an indictment of human hypocrisy. But the latter results in a misreading by those who would ban this book. Because the characters seek to justify their evil deeds, the banners do not see the evil being exposed. Because they do not see the irony Twain is using. (I have long been taught, by the way, and still believe, that all human beings act based on what they think is [for them] good.)

And the perception of evil is compounded by the word “nigger.” Except, that word belongs to this style that is vernacular, as well as to this era and to this region of the country. Actually, I think the word becomes an excuse for what those who would ban this book sense to be a refutation of their standard of morality. Thus, they can ignore that the novel is really a refutation of their own human hypocrisy.

And Twain’s theme begins, indeed, on the very first page of this novel, when Tom tells Huck he is going to form a gang of robbers, and invites Huck to join. Whereupon, his plans do not succeed because, in his secret cave, Tom reveals arbitrary rules for robbing, rules that precisely foreshadow what will later become his rules for rescuing Jim.

Huck also has discussions about Providence and the need to be good, not bad, in this life in order to enter heaven. Which introduces the theme of good and evil that will trouble Huck’s in his adventures along the river—for it will raise doubts about what is actually good and what is actually evil. And then the idea of witchcraft and superstition enters, complicating the issue and one’s own responsibility for one’s actions.

From the start, Twain sets up his treatment of hypocrisy and deceit. It begins with the trick Huck uses when he flees his cruel father. That is, Huck kills a pig and leaves a trail of blood to the river, thus leading people to think his dead body has been swept away. And it is Huck’s belief that Tom would admire this subterfuge.

As Huck’s adventures begin, Twain dramatizes Huck’s desire to flee civilization and its artificial constraints, a desire he repeats in the book’s final line. These adventures begin when Huck encounters the nigger Jim, also in flight because he fears he is going to be sold down-river. Slowly, Twain lets Huck and the reader see the human side of Jim, which makes the “civil” treatment of slaves all the more inhuman.

The amusing chapter in which Huck pretends to be a girl offers another variation on the theme of pretense and reality. Which continues when Huck tells an elaborate lie to get a boatman to go upriver and rescue bad men caught in a shipwreck. And follows in an amusing discussion in which Jim misses the point of the story of Solomon in the Bible, with Huck defending the customary rationale.

Next, Huck and Jim get dramatically separated in a fog, whereupon, when they reunite, Huck tells Jim it was all a dream. Which Jim accepts until reality sets in—that theme again. And when Jim reveals how distraught he was in thinking Huck was lost, then Huck  begins to accept the humanity of Jim. Indeed, Huck later tells another lie, this time to save Jim, saying that the man on his raft (Jim) has smallpox in order to drive away men looking for runaway slaves.

Huck and Jim are separated again when a steamboat rams their raft and they dive overboard. Huck is taken in by the middle-class Grangefords, who are dueling with the Shepherdsons—still another example of adhering (as Tom does) to the false protocols of the past.

Finally, Huck and Jim rescue two men who turn out to be confidence men, the duke and the Dauphin (the king). These two decide to create their own misshapen theatrical drama based on the classics, a drama to entice an audience who thinks it is getting the real classics.

In their final deceit, the confidence men pretend to be the brothers of Peter Wilks, a rich man who has just died. But Huck’s conscience is troubled by his collaborating with these men to cheat the Wilks girls of their inheritance. Then the true Wilks heirs show up, and all plans are foiled, both Huck’s and the duke’s and the king’s. Whereupon, the final adventure, of rescuing Jim, begins. And it begins with the lie of Huck pretending to be Tom Sawyer, since Tom’s Aunt Sally expects Tom’s arrival.

I go through these details of lies, mistaken identity, and deceit to suggest how perfectly planned this novel is. That even the artifice of the final rescue of Jim is not actually out of tune with the more serious travels down the river. And, in retrospect, even those adventures were not themselves that serious; they were filled with humor and lies and artifice as well.

Finally, what is remarkable to me is the various duels Huck has with his own conscience. They basically concern his helping the slave Jim escape, but they also involve supporting the confidence men and stealing money to get the girls their true inheritance. Twain has Huck thinking that he has been trained/educated in a certain way—that slavery is valid, that the adult world’s rules should be followed, etc—but that in specific situations he senses that such principles are wrong, that they lead to injustice. So he decides he must be “bad,” even if it means he will not go to heaven, in order to do right by people on earth. And it is this ironic exposure of hypocrisy that troubles many readers.

This reading prompts me to go back one day to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and perhaps to the two subsequent books about Huck. I do not expect them to be great masterpieces, such as this work is, but it might be interesting to read how the story of Huck evolved in Twain’s mind. (March 2014)