Even though I have so little time to myself this time of year, I still tend to pick at least one gigantic and challenging book to read each month. Last month, it was Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Next month, it will be my third re-reading of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. This month, it was Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, probably the greatest novel to come from Peru.
Conversation in the Cathedral cuts through a broad swath of Peruvian society during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odria (1948-1956), from the corrupt Zavala family, which is tied in to Odria, and Don Cayo Bermudez, the dictator’s enforcer, to the chauffeurs, Odriista strongarms, mistresses, and whores who are all in on the take. The major characters are Santiago Zavala, nicknamed Zavalita, and Ambrosio Pardo. The first is the eldest scion of the Zavalas; the second, a black former chauffeur for Zavalita’s father and also for the infamous Cayo Bermudez, Odria’s security chief. Ostensibly, the “conversation” of the title is between Zavalita and Ambrosio, who have just met at the dog pound where the latter now works. It takes place at bar called the Cathedral.
For the first third of the novel, numerous conversations between several of the characters are interleaved—conversations taking place at different times and in different places. Then Vargas Llosa continues in a more conventional vein picking up various threads of the story. Every once in a while, however, threads of the main conversation between Zavalita and Ambrosio reappear.
Estranged from his wealthy family after a flirtation with communism as a student, Zavalita breaks free and becomes a reporter for The Crónica, a Lima daily newspaper, where he gets involved with murders, stories about lottery winners, and other lowlife minutiae, to the disgust of his family. He gets married to a nurse who his mother claims is little better than a maid.
In the end we see numerous stories of blighted ambitions and hopes arising from the heavy hand of President Odria and his enforcers—all taking place over a period of approximately a decade.
If Vargas Llosa never wrote another word in his life, I think that Conversation in the Cathedral was sufficient in its scope and excellence to qualify him for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he eventually won in 2010, over forty years after he wrote this novel.