Conversation in the Cathedral
Mario Vargas Llosa
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Conversation in the Cathedral
Mario Vargas Llosa
608 pages
February 2005
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Manuel Odría ruled Peru from 1948 until 1956. His dictatorship was deeply corrupt. His Minister of Internal Affairs, for instance, ran a brothel. That the carbon in charge of internal affairs should run a prostitution ring is, like a death-row guard named Mort, almost unbearably ironic. In this case, it’s true. Politicians and industrialists performed perverse acts and whispered state secrets to the prostitutes, giving the Minster, and Odría, leverage on all sorts of situations and people.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s sweeping novel is a history of Peru and Latin American dictatorships told in a Joycean late-1960s conversation in a bar known as The Cathedral. Santiago is the son of an influential politician who, like so many idealistic young people in the ‘60s, has rejected his father’s corrupt if pragmatic world. Santiago is a minor editorial-page journalist. One afternoon, at the insistence of his wife, he goes in search of the family dog. Dogs were being picked up as strays, even if they weren’t, because the dogcatchers got paid per animal. At the pound Santiago runs into his father’s now-aging chauffeur, Ambrosio.

Santiago and Ambrosio strike up a conversation at The Cathedral. The subject of their long conversation is the 16-year dictatorship of Odría, as Santiago is after the truth about his father’s involvement in a notorious murder if that era. If, in Ulysses, James Joyce managed to give a political history of Ireland in a single 1904 day’s perambulations, Llosa managed a political history of an entire continent in an afternoon’s conversation. Where Joyce’s masterpiece is full of modernist tricks and the rejection of naturalism, Llosa’s is less flashy, and he is, arguably, the better novelist. He manages to include a vast panoply of characters remembered, either directly or through various media, by Santiago and Ambrosio. The effect is truly cathedral-like, echoing and resonating with the voices of the dead, the broken and the until-now forgotten.

Conversation in the Cathedral was originally published in 1969, when Llosa was 33, and translated into English in 1975. Llosa called it an attempt at a “total novel”: the complete fictionalization of an entire society. Llosa may be, and indeed has been, criticized for his political beliefs (he was a staunch supporter of neoliberlism and admired Margaret Thatcher, for instance; this may well be why he hasn’t won the Nobel, despite being short-listed any number of times), but there is no doubt that he has long been one of the great craftsmen of the long-fiction form. In Conversation, he never drops a stitch, building and maintaining suspense on a monumental scale.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Brian Charles Clark, 2005

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