Conversation in the Cathedral

Truly a Big-Ass Novel, But Worth Every Minute Spent Reading It

Truly a Big-Ass Novel, But Worth Every Minute Spent Reading It

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.


The Peruvian Military Academy

The Colegio Militar Leoncio Prado Near Lima

The Colegio Militar Leoncio Prado Near Lima

I have just finished reading the first novel by the Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, The Time of the Hero (1963). The originally published title, The City and the Dogs (La Ciudad y los Perros) is probably more appropriate, given the subject matter. As in the United States, military schools are primarily for children of good families from broken homes in which one of the parents (usually the father) wants to “make a man” out of an unruly son. I read over half the book before realizing that the Colegio Militar Leoncio Prado (CMLP) is a real institution in the La Perla district of Lima. It is named after a colonel who was executed by the Chileans after being captured at the Battle of Huamachuco (1883) during the “War of the Pacific” between Bolivia and Peru against Chile. (It was during that war that Bolivia lost its only access to the Pacific by way of the port of Antofagasta.)

Vargas Llosa’s CMLP is full of brutal young scamps who break all the rules, haze one another almost beyond endurance, and in general make a mockery of all attempts to civilize them. The author spent several years here from the age of fourteen. Instead of going for a commission in the military, he left the Academy and went on to become a writer and journalist in the northern city of Piura. His book seemed so uncomplimentary to the CMLP that, at first, it bought up copies of the book and had them burned, thinking they were a propaganda tool of the Ecuadorians. Now they are proud of the exposure the novel gave them.

The book centers on Alberto Fernández Temple, a teen from a broken family, and his relations to The Circle, a group of determined cadets who defend themselves and their interests from the officers and the other classes. He befriends Ricardo Arana, nicknamed the Slave, who tries to follow the rules but pays the ultimate price. When Arana informs on a fellow cadet in The Circle who steals a copy of a chemistry exam, he is shot in the head during military maneuvers. This sets Alberto off and he goes up against all his classmates, especially the Jaguar, who is their ringleader. This roils not only the students, but the staff, who are less interested in justice than in smoothing over the crisis.

The Time of the Hero is not a book that holds out much hope for its characters, but it is nonetheless an interesting first effort by Vargas Llosa, who is obviously attempting to exorcise some of the baneful effects of his tenure at the Academy.

If you are interested, you can check out the website of the CMLP and particularly this YouTube video of goose-stepping cadets who are singing as they march.