Conversation in the Cathedral, by Mario Vargas Llosa

by Robert A. Parker

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)

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