Sunday, November 21, 2010

Conversation in the Cathedral - Mario Vargas Llosa

Month of November is for reading the newly crowned Nobel prize winner. Unlike the last couple of years, this time it wasn't some one new to me. Having read 10 odd books by Mario Vargas Llosa, I wasn't looking forward to a new revelation of an author. However, there is many of his books, I haven't put my hands on. That could be a lie, if I talk about this one. Having bought this in 1995 and started a couple of times, but never going beyond few pages ( I do not abandon books, but this book was an exception). The reason for putting it aside was not because it was not interesting or I do not like the writer, but was some stupid house moving etc. The announcement of Nobel Prize, thus became an inspiration to take this up again.

Written as conversation between two people on one afternoon in a local pub, this giant book of Mario Vargas Llosa, take us to the 50s of Peru under the dictatorship of Manuel Odria. Santiago, an editorial page journalist with La Cronica, goes in search of his missing dog on the insistence of his wife. The dog was forcefully taken from her by the dog catchers, who are paid by the authorities by the count of dogs. It was during this recovery of his dog, Santiago met with Ambrosio, an old time associate and driver of his politician cum Industrialist. Over the next few hours they discuss the period of the dictatorship and their life during those times over few bottles of beer at a shady pub known as the Cathedral.

Young Santiago, an idealistic young boy in his early twenties, move out of his house with differences with the family and their association with the power, leading a nomadic life there after. He gets into trouble with the authorities with his involvement with the Communists and APRISTAS ( members of APRA another rebel outfit who ruled Peru before Odria) and soon get disillusioned with politics, gets into the life of a journalist.. "My whole life spent doing things without believing, my whole life spent pretending""And my whole life is a lie, I don't believe in anything." His low paying job is just enough to make his ends meet , but he refuses to take any support from his super rich family.

Through Ambrosio's narrative, Santiago understand the complex and dangerous life his family is leading. At the high level of political circle, no one is safe. As he explains, his father has business interest than political. Having dependency on the Government orders for his business, he was suddenly left to nothing when these were suspended by fellow minister. The political quagmire and the unrest in the society lead to the elimination of many a powerful leaders changing the fortune of the family

This is a book on Power and Politics. This is not about dictatorship and cruelty, It examines the life of people closely associated with the power and however close you are to the power you are not any different from the people on the street. Every minister is corrupt, some of them run prostitute ring, they are low in morality and often spend evenings with their mistresses and wild parties. Political manipulations and repression is rampant and most of the close associates of the powerful men do the dual roles ( chauffeur as well as henchman ). To his surprise Santiago realise the involvement of his father in a murder and his unnatural sexual tendencies. Despite his trouble relationship with his family, especially his mother, his relationship with the father was always courteous and with respect. His father was always concerned about him, while respecting his decision to be independent, while the rest of the house consider him as a looser.

There is depth in every character and the interlink is strong and methodical. Be it the wife of Ambrosio, the cook in the family of Zavalitas or be it the mistress of the ministers. Llosa deploys a very complex structure of narrative. There are 3-4 conversations simultaneously, between different people at multiple places and different time period. Hence it is demanding on the reader. The book is long and fine printed. But this is very engaging, and never a dull moment. The secret or the story is revealed gradually and the build up is done phenomenally brilliant. Llosa's mastery in story telling is at the best. This book is considered by many as one of his best works.

Conversation in the Cathedral ( 1969)
Mario Vargas Llosa ( translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa 1975 )

Faber and Faber

601 Pages

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