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Critical Essay by Charles Rossman
SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral: Power Politics in a Corrupt Society," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 493-509.
An American educator and critic who specializes in the study of Modernist literature, Rossman is the author and the editor of several books about D. H. Lawrence. In the following essay, he focuses on characterization in his examination of the themes and ideas presented in Conversation in the Cathedral.
Vargas Llosa on the Difference Between Latin American Novels and Those of Europe and North America:
The historical reality, the framework of experiences within which the Latin American novelist writes, is a reality threatened with extinction. This perspective is traditionally the one which has nurtured the illusion—naïve, demented, but nevertheless formidable—of wishing to recapture with fantasy and words the total image of a world, of seeking to write novels that express this total reality not only qualitatively, but also quantitatively…. The European or North American novelist in our day rarely attempts to write a "total" novel. The crises that agitate their societies are different from those that are currently disrupting Latin American society. The former affect only the surface or marginal strata of historical reality; the foundations of that reality remain essentially untouched. This reality, which is still thought to be viable, does not awaken the same "total" rejection which compels today's Latin American novelist to attempt "totally" to replace reality with "total" novels. Quite the contrary, the historical reality currently found in Europe and North America evokes only mocking withdrawal and condescending criticism from the writers of those areas, postures which are translated into novels at times brilliant but nevertheless modest and skeptical, and at times luxuriously gratuitous. What is involved here is a profound difference, but at the same time it is provisional and precarious. Latin America will not continue to languish indefinitely, nor will the European countries and the United States always be able to assimilate their inherent historical contradictions.
Mario Vargas Llosa, in his "The Latin American Novel Today," a 1970 essay translated in World Literature Today, Spring 1989.
Conversation in The Cathedral is Mario Vargas Llosa's most overtly political novel. To be sure, all his books reverberate with political implications, given their depiction of political corruption, the abuse of power, the exploitation of the weak, and the coerciveness of the socioeconomic hierarchy. But Conversation in The Cathedral addresses such themes directly and explores them within an explicitly political setting in modern Peru. The novel centers on those rich and powerful Peruvians who jockey for position during the dictatorship of Manuel Odria, who seized power in 1948 but yielded it to an elected president, Manuel Prado, in 1956. [In a footnote the critic adds: "Conversation in The Cathedral covers the years 1948 to 1963, roughly speaking, with some brief flashbacks to much earlier times than 1948. The entire Odría era is therefore embraced by the novel."] Conversation focuses on Peru's recent history as the occasion for a fictive meditation on the sources, nature, and consequences of power.
Conversation is doubly concerned with how the quest for power transforms one's life, and with how that quest affects the lives of others not themselves immediately caught up in the struggle. Conversation therefore depicts in detail the lives of two distinct groups of people: on the one hand, the politicians and wealthy businessmen who vie for power; on the other hand, several people who are peripheral to the political drama itself, yet intimately involved with its chief actors. The first group includes Cayo Bermúdez, Odría's most powerful minister; Fermín Zavala, a wealthy businessman who eventually plots against the Odría government; and a cluster of generals and senators. The second group includes Santiago Zavala, Fermín's son; Ambrosio, a black chauffeur who works at different times for both Bermúdez and Zavala; Hortensia, a lesbian nightclub singer known as the Muse, who is Bermúdez's mistress; and a number of civil servants, mistresses, prostitutes, newspapermen, and political thugs.
Although Conversation in The Cathedral is overtly political, it is not narrowly so. For in fact, Conversation demonstrates that political reality is quintessential reality. The self-seeking, exploitative use of power that characterizes Peruvian political life in the novel equally permeates Peru's economic, social, and even domestic life. Political and economic goals tend to authenticate one another, and both define social and familial attitudes.
As Santiago Zavala says of his father, the well-heeled in Peru have no "'political ideas,'" they have only "'political interests.'" That is, such men automatically embrace the political attitudes that further their economic ends. They are burdened with no qualms about principles, no detached speculation about ideals or social justice. All that matters is one's self-interest. Cayo Bermúdez, who becomes Odría's Minister of Public Order, puts the matter with succinct honesty. When a military officer observes that Fermín Zavala supports the government only to "'do business,'" Bermúdez replies that "'we're all with the government out of convenience…. I'm not paid to believe, I'm paid to do my job.'" His job is to entrench Odría's power, and his own, at whatever cost.
Like the numerous prostitutes in Conversation, politicians and businessmen routinely sell themselves for cash or privilege. But such venality is hardly confined to the rich and powerful; it is endemic throughout the social order depicted in the novel. At the bottom of the social ladder, moreover, the political prostitution is especially mindless and brutal. Without a trace of conscience, hired thugs engineer strikes, control crowds, rig elections, and imprison or even kill the opposition.
Conversation in The Cathedral opens with Santiago Zavala emerging from the offices of La Crónica, the Lima newspaper for which he writes editorials, on his way home for lunch. He takes a shuttle taxi to his cramped apartment in the affluent suburb Miraflores. There he finds his wife, Ana, distraught because their dog has been captured by overzealous dogcatchers. Santiago rushes to the pound, where he recognizes one of the pound's black employees—whose job is to beat dogs to death with a club—as his father's former chauffeur, Ambrosio Pardo.
It has been at least a decade since Santiago last saw Ambrosio (the chronology is difficult to determine, and may even be consciously confused by Vargas Llosa). It is Ambrosio's lunch hour, and the two go off together, with the rescued dog, to a nearby working-class restaurant and brothel, The Cathedral, They drink beer and converse for some four hours. As they leave The Cathedral, Santiago's head is spinning, partly from the beer but mainly from the swirl of thoughts and memories provoked by their conversation. They part with an odd blend of friendliness and estrangement. Santiago returns home, delivers the dog to Ana, and falls into bed for an afternoon nap. There the chapter ends.
The book's opening chapter occurs in the narrative present, which appears to be 1963. Santiago's collapse into bed to sleep it off is, in terms of the novel's chronology, the latest event in the novel. The thirty subsequent chapters recount earlier events that unfold toward the present. It is not true, as some commentators assert, that the initial conversation between Santiago and Ambrosio somehow contains all the events and conversations that follow, that the entire novel quotes and disposes only what has been uttered or thought during that four-hour "conversation in The Cathedral." Much of what happens in the nearly six hundred remaining pages occurs outside the awareness of either Santiago or Ambrosio. We should therefore regard the rest of the book as suggested by and growing out of that first conversation, as antecedents and associations that, paradoxically, echo and elaborate a conversation that they precede chronologically.
The conversation in The Cathedral is just one of the novel's several pivotal conversations, notably those between Ambrosio and Don Fermín, between Santiago and his fellow journalist Carlitos, and between Ambrosio and the prostitute Queta. Phrases from various conversations recur intermittently throughout the book as brief, puzzling fragments—a single intruded sentence here, an exchange of two sentences there—that disrupt the histories of the five major characters: Fermín Zavala, his son Santiago, Cayo Bermúdez, the Zavala's household servant, Amalia, and Ambrosio, who has been Bermúdez's childhood friend, who is Amalia's lover, and who therefore serves to link the stories of several characters together.
Vargas Llosa organizes the personal histories in Conversation much as he had the interwoven narrative strands of The Green House, his immediately preceding novel. That is, he arranges the lives of interacting characters into discrete narratives told from the limited perspective of a single character; fragments from each such history alternate with fragments from the others, often in a consistently recurring pattern; and the various histories occur in different time-planes. (Chapter one is the only sustained sequence of any length that is narrated in conventionally linear fashion.) The various narratives intertwine and overlap to yield a whole that is disclosed only as a result of the reader's alert and active involvement. The disjunctions of chronology, the abrupt shifts in perspective, and the temporal circularity of the novel (by which the reader is led from the opening chapter through prior history back to events that occur just before those of the opening chapter), coupled with the gradually disclosed but indispensable conversations, all mean that the reader is prepared to understand the mood and circumstances of Santiago Zavala in chapter one only after the entire novel has been read.
Because my concern in this essay is with the political elements of Conversation, what follows will largely ignore the novel's dazzling complexities of form. Instead, I concentrate on four characters—Santiago, Fermín, Bermúdez, and Ambrosio—with a mind to inferring from these characters and their actions the political vision embodied by Conversation in The Cathedral. I reconstruct the stories of these characters in their chronological order, exposing causality and consequence in their interrelated lives. We begin with Santiago Zavala.
Stepping out of the office of La Crónica in the novel's opening paragraph, Santiago asks himself: "At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" Immediately, Santiago links the state of the country with the state of individuals, starting with himself: "He was like Peru, Zavalita was, he'd fucked himself up somewhere along the line. He thinks: when?" He quickly adds: "there's no solution." His story during the rest of the book is a search for the answer to "when" he, like Peru, had "fucked himself up," and to why there is "no solution." Throughout the book, Santiago regularly poses the questions to himself: "was it then?" or "had it been at that time?"
Santiago has already become a free-thinker as a high school student, during the earliest episodes in his life that the reader experiences. As such, he is an anomaly in his family and, indeed, in his social class. His father is a conservative businessman making a fortune because of his judicious support of the Odría regime, particularly his carefully nourished relationship with Cayo Bermúdez. Members of his family harbor the conventional prejudices of their class: a smug belief in their social superiority; exaggerated respect for money and business activity; contempt for Indians and half-breeds; pride in their children's minds so long as the children get good grades but do not have fresh ideas; fear that anything suggesting social change is the work of communists. Members of his family expect him to share their values, exploit his "contacts," and devote his energy to making money. His father's advice about the purpose of a university is typical: "'Study hard, get your law degree and you can dip your spoon into politics.'"
Santiago stands in opposition to the whole cluster of values and purposes represented by his family, especially his father. He opposes the military and Odría because they came to power by force. He chooses San Marcos over Catholic University both because he dislikes priests and because San Marcos is where "the people" go. He gets excellent grades in high school, but he also reads a lot (which is, ironically, something of a subversive activity), writes poetry in secret, and has "ideas"—all of which provoke the mockery of his brother and sister, who jeeringly call him "Superbrain." (In contrast, friends at the fashionable Terrazas Club have nicknamed his brother "Tarzan.") Santiago does not articulate many of his "ideas" in these early scenes, but we infer from what he and others say that Santiago affirms abstract principles of social justice and economic equality—ideas anathema to his father, his family, his social class, and the Odría regime.
Neither his family nor his friend Popeye regards Santiago's political ideas as pure, high-minded principles. Rather, they dismiss his ideas as merely the product of a supercilious and negative temperament. His brother and sister call him a "'know-it-all'" who opposes "'everything [that Don Fermín] says.'" Even easygoing Popeye believes that Santiago is "'always against everything,'" that he gives his life "'a bitter taste just for the hell of it.'" Don Fermín, who suffers the most from Santiago's disaffection, puts the general feeling with greatest poignancy: "'Nobody can get along with you…. Even if we treat you with love, you always give us a kick in the pants.'"
Not surprisingly, Santiago at first sees himself as a person of untainted motives, as simply a good man defending his principles against a corrupt, hostile world. "'I don't play the know-it-all,'" he says, "'I attack when I'm attacked.'" By the time that he reaches the university, however, he can be more truthful with himself. Issues and solutions both seem more complicated to him then, and he cannot share his friend's ardent confidence in their own opinions. For instance, Santiago laments the gap between himself and his girlfriend Aída, whose complete and uncomplicated dedication to her political ideals strikes Santiago as a "purity" unattainable by him. When Aída and Jacobo eagerly join the university's tiny cell of communists, Santiago is crippled by ideological doubts and remains officially only a "sympathizer" rather than a full-fledged "member" of the group. Santiago agrees with Aída that doubts are fatal, that they paralyze the will to action, and that society cannot be changed unless people of strong will act decisively. He earnestly wants to share Aída's pure commitment to a political cause. Nevertheless, he holds a part of himself back, involuntarily checked by doubts despite his eagerness to believe.
Santiago's doubts, his inability to believe unquestioningly and to act on that affirmation, become a major theme in Conversation. An interior voice nags him about his failure to believe: "What had probably fucked you up was that lack of faith, Zavalita." He confesses to Ambrosio, years after the failure to follow Aída into communism and social action, that he has spent his "'whole life … wanting to believe in something…. And my whole life [is] a lie, I don't believe in anything.'" Clearly, Santiago here has in mind doubts more profound than quibbles over a particular ideology, and faith more embracing than a fashionable political or economic theory. As Santiago insists to Ambrosio in The Cathedral: "'It's the best thing that can happen to someone…. Believing in what he says, liking what he does.'"
Faith; belief in something, one's life as a lie—these are probing ideas and grand phrases that point to a fundamental existential crisis, the words of someone whose every action has been emptied of meaning. Without religion, without political conviction, without a father to admire or a woman to love deeply, Santiago feels isolated and adrift. He does not, of course, wish for a particular religion or social philosophy to compel his mindless consent. He just wants to experience his actions, however contingent, as purposive and significant. But he cannot attain such simple purity of conviction, either as a student at San Marcos or as, in the narrative present, a thirty-year-old journalist. Rather, he holds his nose as he writes his editorials, reads novels and watches movies that fail to grip him, endures a bland marriage that seems almost an accident, and puts on weight from drinking too much.
Santiago can sleep off the afternoon's drink, but he cannot escape the persistent malaise that undermines his sense of direction. At age thirty, Santiago has come to the conclusion that political, economic, and social circumstances in Peru require a person either to "'fuck himself up'" or "'[fuck] up other people.'" given so harshly restricted a choice, Santiago, as a man of intelligence and conscience, prefers to "fuck himself up." Implicitly, then, Santiago blames the malaise on the time and place of his birth, on the fact that he was born in a country hopelessly gone wrong. His only recourse, as he sees it, is to withdraw from both the success-orientation of his family and the alternative of radical politics. He chooses to "fuck himself up" in a job without meaning.
Conversation in The Cathedral charts Santiago's life to the age of thirty. We witness the evolution of his sense of social justice, his pain at discovering that he is a member of a privileged social class, his guilty repudiation of his father for being the source of that privilege, and finally his repudiation of most of Peru's social reality. But after a brief flirtation with direct social action, he withdraws completely into a life of ineffectuality and futility at La Crónica. He has recoiled—honorably—from privilege, bigotry, and self-serving ideology. But he has discovered nothing to affirm in the place of what he rejects. At book's end, he remains little more than the spirit of negation. He is as unformed and directionless at age thirty as he was the night of his arrest. He knows what he does not want from life—to be like his father or his brother: well-dressed, proper, smug, and materialistic. But he has no real answer to his brother's perplexed question, "'I'll never understand you, Superbrain…. What the devil do you want out of life?'"
Like Lieutenant Gamboa in Vargas Llosa's first novel, The Time of the Hero, Santiago cannot survive the loss of moral innocence. Santiago's disillusionment is more complex than the mere discovery that his world is not receptive to youthful idealism, or than the more brutal lesson that some people act with intentional malice. What Santiago cannot accept is that good people sometimes commit bad deeds, that good intentions often backfire, and that human motives—including one's own—are mixed and elusive of understanding. Santiago cannot, that is, learn these painful lessons and continue to act positively toward the implementation of his principles.
But we should not conclude that Santiago's situation can be adequately assessed merely by describing his psychological straits, as though he represents a conventional adolescent rebellion soured into negation and cynicism. Rather, Vargas Llosa has given us a portrait—almost a case study—of what can happen to youthful idealism in political circumstances that seek to defeat it.
After the story of Santiago Zavala, the fullest and most important personal history in Conversation is that of Cayo Bermúdez. Santiago and Cayo cross paths only once, the night that Santiago is arrested by Cayo for his political activity and released into his father's custody. But Santiago has learned long before to despise Cayo as the symbol of the oppressive Odría government. During the six years or so that Cayo Bermúdez holds power, he is the regime's public face of authority, the most obvious perpetrator of a repressive power whose only aim is to perpetuate itself.
Cayo has a temperament perfectly suited to his political tasks. He is a coldly detached manipulator of people and events, who often deals with people in an openly disdainful or ironic manner. For example, when Santiago recounts the night of his arrest to his friend Carlitos, he describes Cayo's indifferent, bored expression as a "dry, parchment-like, insipid face." Cayo speaks "as if he gave a damn about what he was saying," as if "he was mouthing nonsense at a social gathering." Santiago describes how Cayo informs Don Fermín about his subversive political activities in a bored tone, without either "listening to me or looking at me, Carlitos, smiling at my old man as if he was telling him a joke."
The reader first learns of Cayo in chapter three, when a lieutenant transports him from his village, Chincha, to begin his career in the Ministry of Public Order. Like Santiago, the lieutenant finds Cayo a man "with a dry and acidy face" that "didn't change … expression" and "didn't smile," a face with "dull" eyes that "weren't surprised or alarmed or happy," but remained simply "uninterested and bored." When Cayo finally smiles, the lieutenant feels that he "was making fun" of him. Some four hundred pages later, the prostitute Queta responds to Cayo similarly. Queta notes "his thin and bony face, his bored mouth, his tiny eyes." When Cayo speaks, Queta hears a "voice devoid of emotion, dry, somewhat despotic," a voice that "vehemently and yet glacially" orders her about. Queta sums him up as "an impotent man full of hate … a masturbator full of hate."
Cayo is anything but impotent in the realm of politics, yet when Queta spontaneously links his authoritarian manner with tormented sexuality and hatred, she has a genuine insight. Cayo bristles with sexual frustration and may actually be impotent. He is driven by a profound social resentment that provokes him both to hate and to be jealous of his social superiors. A fragmented conversation between Don Fermín and Ambrosio suggests that Cayo's aberrant sexuality and his social resentment are jointly rooted in his estrangement from his father, a loan shark known as the Vulture.
Cayo's split with his father occurred twenty or more years before he leaves Chincha with the lieutenant. It began when Cayo was infatuated with an Indian girl named Rosa, the daughter of the village milkwoman. With the aid of Ambrosio, a childhood friend, and another friend, Espina, Cayo had abducted Rosa and married her. The scant facts suggest that Rosa engineered a coup, that by playing on Cayo's sexual desires she first enticed him and then converted what he had planned as a rape into a marriage. Cayo's sudden marriage to the daughter of an Indian who rode through the village on a donkey, selling milk by the gourd from house to house, outraged his father. The Vulture repudiated the marriage and disinherited his son.
Although Rosa grows fatter and uglier each year, Cayo stays with her through the decades, until the lieutenant arrives to enlist him in Odría's new regime. Why Cayo remains so long with Rosa, whom he finally leaves forever with only a vague wave of the hand, is a mystery. In Lima, Cayo's old friend Espina wonders aloud about the marriage. "'You fucked yourself up with that crazy marriage,'" he says. "'It was the great mistake of your life.'" But Cayo does not respond, and he remains pointedly silent about Rosa throughout the book, which reports neither a word said by Cayo to Rosa, nor a thought that he has about her. Don Fermín's explanation for the marriage, however, is probably accurate: Cayo stays with Rosa, living just above the poverty level, in order "to kill his father with disappointment."
Ironically, Cayo's act of spite wounds him at least as much as it does his father. It is Cayo who endures the painful details of his marriage and the daily humiliation of his poverty. The reader, then, will likely concur with Espina that the marriage was "the great mistake" of Cayo's life. Eventually, the years of hostile domesticity, we surmise, embitter Cayo and twist his sexual desires into impulses toward revenge. He does not crave "normal" heterosexual, genital relationships. Rather, he prefers to watch lesbians making love to one another, or to have fantasies about whipping the naked wives of wealthy, white oligarchs. Thus, when Cayo takes a mistress, the Muse, she is a lesbian who willingly performs before him with her female lover. Similarly, when Cayo goes to a brothel, it is to coerce two prostitutes to have sex with each other as he watches. He enjoys both the prospect and the fact of humiliating women by treating them like objects to manipulate and observe.
Sexuality, the exercise of power, and vengeance—against his father first, then against women, then against the white ruling class, which possesses what Cayo has been denied for so long—become symbolically intertwined in Cayo's mind. For instance, as Cayo sits in the Cajamarca Club listening to a speech by Senator Heridia, he imagines that he is watching the senator's lily-white wife having sexual relations with her dark-skinned maid. The fantasy achieves several symbolic effects. It allows him to vent his animosity towards women and whites, while also symbolically mastering the pompous senator through appropriating his wife. In another instance, as Cayo intimidates a newsman into cooperation with government censorship, he fantasizes that he is soliciting a lover for a homosexual acquaintance, Robertito. "I've got him just right for you, Robertito," Cayo thinks. "Your jar of vaseline and forward."
Behavior like Cayo's, in which sexuality mingles with the relief of frustration, the impulse toward vengeance, or the will to power, abounds throughout Conversation. The most important illustration is Don Fermín's homosexual activity with Ambrosio. Fermín occasionally lapses into homosexual desire as an act of desperation when, in Ambrosio's words, "something's gone wrong for him." Fermín takes Ambrosio to his home in Ancón, for instance, on the night that Cayo arrests Santiago. Another example of aberrant sexuality is the behavior of the hired thug Hipólito. Severely beating people gives him a sexual thrill, and as a victim grows weaker and loses consciousness, Hipólito gets an erection. Ambrosio's murder of the Muse also has its sexual overtones. He claims to have killed her only because she was blackmailing Don Fermín. But it is no routine murder, and its excesses suggest a more complex or ambiguous motivation. Ambrosio's surcharge of passion leads him to mutilate her body savagely, particularly her navel and vagina.
These and other instances of symbolic, often violent, sexual behavior contribute to the accumulating implications of the apparently casual obscenity that Santiago uses on the novel's first page, as he broods about precisely when he and Peru had "fucked themselves up." It is the same obscene phrase that Espina uses to comment on Cayo's marriage, and it recurs frequently, along with several variations. The phrase becomes, through its repetition, the expression of one of the novel's key ideas. That idea is articulated in its most elaborate form by Santiago in his conversation with Ambrosio. Santiago is glad, he says, that he went to San Marcos University "'because, thanks to San Marcos, I fucked myself up…. And in this country a person who doesn't fuck himself up fucks up other people.'"
Taken literally, Santiago's words aptly describe much of the sexual behavior just discussed above. Taken as metaphor, they express Santiago's belief that a Peruvian has only two choices, given an economic and political system in which power is acquired by bribery, duplicity, and force. He must, if he remains within the system, strive to victimize others in the pursuit of money and power. "Success" means to deceive and plunder; failure is to become the victim of someone else. The only alternative, in Santiago's view, is to opt out of the system altogether, and hence to become another kind of failure or victim. As he sees it, his society functions at the level of animal appetites, hostile to ideals and to principles, and offering "no solution."
It is revealing to compare Santiago and Cayo with the sexual metaphor in mind. Vargas Llosa has established many parallels between the two, and although they meet only once, their lives illuminate one another, while also illustrating the individual's possibilities in Peruvian society, as depicted in Conversation.
Santiago and Cayo both compile superior records as secondary students. Both anticipate, as adolescents, careers in law, yet neither finishes at the university. Both have successful fathers who are self-made men, and both provoke deep rifts with their fathers. They both suffer from youthful love gone wrong, and both alienate their families by marrying women who are their social inferiors. At some point in his life, each has hated his father, perhaps enough to injure himself just to make his father suffer. All of which is to say that, in terms of Santiago's sexual metaphor, they both "fuck themselves up" as youths because each forfeits the kind of future that his father expects of him and that his social position has prepared him for.
These purposeful similarities between Cayo and Santiago provide the reader an interpretive context for several significant differences between them. Perhaps most obvious is the difference between their fathers, and between their motives for the self-injurious acts which so disappoint the fathers. The Vulture treats Cayo with the ruthlessness that earned him his nickname. He literally throws Cayo through the front door when he learns of his marriage, refusing ever to see Cayo again. Cayo's motive for staying with Rosa, then, as Fermín intuits, appears simply to be vengeance against the Vulture.
The division between Santiago and Don Fermín, on the other hand, has little to do with Fermín's behavior toward his son. In contrast to the Vulture, Don Fermín loves Santiago to the point that he openly favors him over his other children. Fermín repeatedly begs Santiago to accept his help, and he tries earnestly to understand why his son has repudiated him. Santiago hates his father as an abstraction, as the symbol of a rejected social class, in spite of his warm and gentle personal manner. As a result, some of the most poignant scenes in the novel are those in which Don Fermín vainly tries to reach his son across the ideological gulf that separates them. These scenes complicate moral issues in the novel in two ways. On the one hand, by depicting Don Fermín's love for his son and his yearning for reconciliation, Vargas Llosa has made it impossible for the reader to dismiss Fermín as just one more money-hungry political conniver. Fermín seems to us too humanly complex for easy judgement. On the other hand, Santiago's occasional hatred of his father—"I hate you, papa!" is a recurring phrase—and his refusal to find a common ground between them, despite their ideological differences, seem too uncompromising, too much like mere stubborn immaturity.
The most significant difference between Cayo and Santiago is found in their social trajectories following their initial acts of self-injury. After the prolonged misery of his stultifying marriage, Cayo seizes the opportunity to escape when it is offered by Espina. He succeeds brilliantly as Odría's Director of Public Order, amassing the fortune and gaining the position that he might have had as the Vulture's dutiful son. Cayo suddenly moves in Lima's highest social circles—the world of senators like Heridia and businessmen like Fermín Zavala, a man whom Cayo both resents and envies. But Cayo is never fully integrated into the elite enclave. He can leave his village and his self-destructive marriage behind, but he cannot elude the consequences of his lower-class origins and his race. Cayo is, as the Peruvian racial epithet puts it, a "cholo." As a man of mixed blood, he can never gain the social acceptance of the white oligarchs whom he alternately intimidates and fawns over, no matter how much power or wealth he accumulates. People like Fermín Zavala mix with Cayo socially only because they can make money through cultivating his favor.
As Cayo ascends the social ladder, Santiago chooses to fall. Acting on the maxim that one must either "fuck himself up" or "fuck up other people," Santiago elects the former course, whereas Cayo aggressively pursues the latter. Santiago's descent is depicted in language and imagery that simultaneously reflect his family's perspective and illuminate the contrast between him and Cayo.
When, for example, Santiago decides to go to San Marcos rather than Catholic University, his friends and family describe his choice as a preference for the school of "'Indians'" and "'half-breeds'" over the one attended by "'boys from good families.'" Later, his father regards Santiago's position as a journalist as lower-class work earning a "'paltry little salary.'" Don Fermín bursts out that Santiago wants so badly to make him suffer that he has himself willingly become "trash." When Santiago encounters his brother in the street one day, he thinks to himself, "You weren't like them any more, Zavalita, you were a peasant now." (The Spanish word rendered here as "peasant" is "cholo.") Santiago's marriage to Ana marks his social nadir, so far as his family is concerned. Ana is the dark-skinned daughter of a mulatto woman, and is therefore unthinkable as the wife of Santiago. His mother makes the point with shameless candor: "'how can I see my son married to someone who could be his servant?'" Santiago has become, from the point of view of his family and social class, a cholo.
Fermín Zavala and Cayo Bermúdez are the chief protagonists in the political struggle played out in Conversation in The Cathedral, The rest of the major figures in the novel, apart from Santiago, are what Dostoevsky called "submerged people." Servants, hired toughs, and prostitutes, their lives intertwine with those of the elite and the powerful, but they themselves are negligible underlings. The most important of these, the black chauffeur Ambrosio Pardo, figures intimately in the lives of Don Fermín, Cayo, and Santiago, and thus binds together the strands of their individual narratives.
[In La invención de una realidad, 1977] José Miguel Oviedo points out that Ambrosio is what many people would call a "good man." He is frequently warm toward Santiago, for example, during the extended conversation in The Cathedral that initiates the narrative. In later chapters, he returns to his lover, Amalia, despite her pregnancy by another man. When Amalia gets pregnant again with Ambrosio's own child, he lives with her as a faithful husband until she dies from yet a third pregnancy. Perhaps most significantly, Ambrosio is fiercely loyal to Don Fermín. He defends Fermín in conversation against the scorn of the prostitute, Queta, and against Santiago's darkest fears and most searing charges. Finally, he kills the Muse to protect Fermín, according to Ambrosio's own account of his motives, from her escalating demands as a blackmailer.
Ambrosio's startling gesture of loyalty—the murder of the Muse—exposes his apparent responsibility and loyalty as only dull, mechanical instinct. Ambrosio's loyalty to Don Fermín is like that of a watchdog. He obeys without thought, fawns when it promises advantage, and leaps for the throat of anyone threatening the master. Ambrosio's connection with Amalia is equally instinctual, even fatalistic. Once he discovers Amalia, he feels that he owns her. She is "his woman," and they are bound together forever. Despite their sexual passion, neither is deeply moved by feeling for the other, and their union is largely a utilitarian mating. When Amalia finally dies, Ambrosio leaves their daughter behind with the kindest neighbor that he knows, and heads for Lima.
Ambrosio is, then, something of an animal. He drifts without qualms, for instance, from chauffeuring for Cayo to strong-arm work with the special police. He actually seems happier bullying reluctant partisans of Odría than sitting through the slow nights in Cayo's car. Indeed, Ambrosio does whatever his latest master requests of him, whether abducting Rosa, intimidating uncooperative local politicians, having sexual relations with his employer, or beating dogs to death. Nothing really bothers Ambrosio. He is like the dogs that he destroys, mindlessly loyal toward some people, and mindlessly vicious toward others.
The link between Ambrosio and dogs is more than a useful critical tactic that underscores Ambrosio's simple, instinctual nature. Vargas Llosa himself suggests the parallel between Ambrosio and dogs in his early chapters. In chapter three, for instance, Ambrosio describes his childhood play with Cayo in Chincha (the earliest scenes in the narrative's chronology) with the Spanish words "el y Ambrosio se la pasaban mataperreando." The colloquial expression might be translated "he and Ambrosio spent their time screwing around" (or "fooling around"). "Mataperreando" is especially apt. It combines two words, "matar" ("to kill") and "perro" ("dog"), to form a compound that literally means "killing dogs" or "dog killing." The English reader misses altogether that Ambrosio describes his childhood with a phrase whose literal meaning implies his future as well. Our first glimpse of Ambrosio in chapter one—the latest episode concerning him in the narrative's chronology—fulfills the ironic prophecy concealed in the word "mataperreando."
Vargas Llosa depicts the scene vividly and at some length. Santiago has just rescued his own dog from the pound's kennels, when the manager of the pound invites him to come and "look at the conditions we work under." Santiago looks around him:
a dark silhouette stands next to a sack and is struggling with a dachshund who protests in a voice too fierce for his minimal body as he twists hysterically…. The short half-breed runs, opens the sack, the other slips the dachshund inside. They close the sack with a cord, put it on the ground…. The men already have the clubs in their hands, are already beginning, one-two, to beat and grunt, and the sack dances, leaps, howls madly.
Before the reader knows anything further about Ambrosio, the "dark silhouette" of this passage, he stands revealed in all his forlorn and mindless brutality, doing what he gets paid for. As he says to Santiago, who turns his eyes away in horror: "'One sol for each animal, mister…. Only one sol, mister.'"
The scene reveals not only Ambrosio, but also something essential about the novel's version of Peruvian society. There is little ethical difference between Ambrosio clubbing dogs to death in a bag, Hipólito beating Trinidad López because of his political beliefs, and Trifulcio fomenting a riot during an antigovernment assembly in Arequipa. In each case the participants are as insensate and thoughtless as birds of prey, and the struggle is one between beast and beast. (The chapter introducing Trifulcio contains a symbolic episode in which a bird of prey that has just killed and eaten an iguana is itself eaten by Trifulcio.)
Nor do the activities of Ambrosio, Hipólito, and Trifulcio, viewed from an ethical perspective, differ fundamentally from those of Cayo Bermúdez, Fermín Zavala, and others who wield power. Cayo plans strategy and pays the salaries, while Ambrosio and his colleagues do the dirty work. Cayo and Ambrosio are natural complements at opposite ends of the power spectrum, each serving the other's need and therefore morally implicated in the other's activity. Don Fermín also plays his part in this bizarre symbiosis. Despite his tenderness toward Santiago and his kindness toward servants like Amalia, he is a political schemer. At the outset of the Odría regime, Fermín gives his verbal and financial support to Odría and Cayo Bermúdez, and hence to people like Hipólito. Unlike Hipólito, whose hands sometimes get bloody, and Bermúdez, who knows the details of the operations of the Ministry of Public Order, Fermín keeps his distance from such particulars. He conducts his business with Cayo in posh homes and over the tables of elegant restaurants. Still, his payoffs to Cayo represent his tacit endorsement of Cayo's policies and methods. Fermín, too, is a "dog killer," figuratively speaking, regardless of his distinguished gray hair, his fine suit, and his noble manner.
Even Santiago is drawn into the self-perpetuating dynamics of the system that he despises and has consciously repudiated. After his flurry of political activism years before, Santiago attempts to survive without convictions, as he puts it, at La Crónica. But his discovery of Ambrosio at the pound makes it clear to him—and to the reader, eventually, as the passing chapters clarify events—that even a life aggressively designed as amoral and apolitical has unforeseen political consequences. Santiago writes, "without convictions," the editorials assailing rabies. It seems safe enough to do: trivial pap intended to boost circulation by concocting a rabies epidemic. But the media hype backfires, first, when the dogcatchers steal his own dog—they get one sol per dog, after all, and therefore do not cavil at taking dogs out of the hands of their owners.
Then, more significantly, Santiago learns that his casual editorials contribute to the circumstances of Ambrosio at the pound, to the "'conditions that we work under,'" in the manager's words. Or, as the manager also says, "'In Peru we're still living in the stone age, friend.'" However reluctantly, Santiago helps to create the modern stone age of Peru, helps to weave the web of mindlessness and animality that entangles so many. Ironically, the pound manager urges Santiago to "'write something for your paper … make a protest.'" The ironic point is not lost on Santiago. Four hours later, riding home in a taxi after having left Ambrosio, Santiago thinks: "he kills them with a club and you with editorials." Santiago is yet another "dog killer."
Santiago will not, of course, "make a protest." This episode occurs in the novel's opening chapter, but it is the end of the narrative's chronology and well past the end of Santiago's will to protest fundamental conditions in Peru. In terms of narrative development, the book is over, so to speak, just as it begins. Like a Greek tragedy whose outcome the audience knows in advance, there is a fatalism about Conversation owing to its inverted chronology. The novel evolves like pieces of a mosaic being dropped into position. Gradually, background detail is filled in, implications are explored, allusions become clear, and the book's disjointed chronology establishes itself in linear order. The reader learns over the ensuing thirty chapters, for example, that Santiago will not protest simply because protests in Peru are ineffectual, even when someone musters the will to lodge them. The press has no wish to criticize the status quo. La Crónica, for instance, belongs to the president's own family, and devotes itself to selling papers by featuring popular articles about such matters as lottery winners or the danger of rabid dogs. Organized opponents of the system, like students and workers, are disbanded, arrested, and perhaps exiled. Ultimately, everyone is drawn into the general morass of Peruvian society, or silenced.
Conversation in The Cathedral depicts a society founded on greed and special privilege, and maintained by coercion and duplicity. It is a world of profound prejudices and inequities, divided by social class, wealth, education, skin color, and geography. In the Peru of Conversation ideals inevitably wither in the face of reality, convictions decay into cynicism, love is thwarted, and everything tends toward the mediocrity that Don Fermín despises. The most thoughtful and selfless people collapse into drunken solipsism, like Carlitos, or withdraw into the torments of masochism, like Santiago.
On the other hand, the worst people only too readily prosper. Vargas Llosa resists the sentimentality of even a hint of poetic justice. The Zavala family, after some rough times during the reign of Cayo Bermúdez, continues to get richer. Cayo himself returns to Lima at the end of the novel. He lives permanently in the United States, now, but also has a plush estate in Chaclacayo, complete with swimming pool and vast gardens. Queta registers the orthodox outrage: "'He'll pay for it someday,'" she says. "'You can't be such a shit and live so happily.'" But Queta is wrong. You can; and that is precisely the point of the novel. There is, as Santiago says, "no solution."
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