By Isabel Morales
Published in 1969, Conversation in the Cathedral is one of Mario Vargas Llosa’s most famous novels, reflecting the search for identity and how a lack of personal freedoms has severe repercussions for a nation and its people (Goodreads, 2005). Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian-Spanish writer born in 1936 in Arequipa, Peru. He is the 2010 Literature Nobel Prize winner and one of the most celebrated and esteemed writers of the Spanish-speaking world (Howe, 2010). Vargas Llosa is also considered part of the Latin American Boom, a movement of influential writers in the 1960s and 70s, that includes Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes (Bodenheimer, 2019). Most of his work is highly political and reveals the different facets of power and corruption present in Latin American society. He also combines these themes with personal experiences and opinions that grant an authentic component to his work. Conversation in the Cathedral is undoubtedly one of the best examples of Vargas Llosa’s novels that is focused on Latin America’s political perils.
The novel begins in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Apolinario Odría (1948-56), a period that Vargas Llosa experienced at a young age, that is followed by the presidencies of Manuel Prado, Pérez Godoy, Eduardo Lindley López, and Belaúnde Terry. Vargas Llosa covers twenty years of Peruvian history starting in 1948, until 1968 (Parra, 2020). The book also depicts the lives of two different groups of people: wealthy politicians or businessman who seek power, and those who are not directly implicated with politics, but that are somehow involved with its main actors (Rossman & Llosa, 1987).
After WWII, Peru experienced a short period of democratic transition under the Presidency of José Luis Bustamante y Rivero from 1945 to 1948. It ended with the military coup led by General Manuel A. Odría, who was offered the Ministry of Government and Police by Bustamante’s government shortly prior to the coup (Orrego, 2016). One of Odría’s first steps was to maximize internal political control. He declared the Peruvian Aprista Party (PAP) and the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) illegal. Through this mechanism he was able to control and suppress main political parties influenced by union and popular organizations (Orrego, 2016). Odría led a Governing Board that had to call elections in 1950. But the elections of that year were perhaps the most fraudulent in Peru during the 20th century. What was considered a “restorative revolution”, actually made Odría the only presidential candidate, allowing him to receive 100% of the votes (Orrego, 2016). The July Internal Security law of 1949, which limited individual rights, caused leftist parties to be neglected and allowed to easily intimidate, imprison, or exile opposition politicians and journalists. An example of this is how the leader of the Peruvian Aprista Party, Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, was forced to seek asylum in the Colombian Embassy (Grados, 2000).
The story is constructed through a conversation over beers between two characters in a bar called “The Cathedral.” The two characters are Santiago Zavala, a young journalist who is the son of a rich politician, and Ambrosio, Santiago’s father’s chauffeur. As the story progresses with its complex dialogues, Santiago begins to discover the full extent of his father’s corruption under the dictatorship (Levine, 1975). Therefore, the novel shows the various effects the dictatorship had on Peruvian society, such as prohibiting politics, censoring the press, filling jail cells with political prisoners, and introducing a level of corruption never seen before in Peru (Parra, 2020). In fact, Vargas Llosa stated the intention of the novel: “In this work I am attempting to reflect the social atmosphere of Peru during the eight-year rule of Odría: that mild but incredibly corrupt dictatorship that I experienced at first hand during my college years in Lima...But it is not a political novel: rather it is the reflection on many levels (social, human, erotic, racial and political as well) of Peru during this period” (Kirk, 1977).
One of the best elements of Vargas Llosa’s description of Peruvian society in the novel, is the portrayal of the upper-middle class which he calls la gente decente or “decent people.” Vargas Llosa experienced this elite firsthand during his youth in Miraflores and wanted to highlight their faults and corruption during the dictatorship. The novel presents different scenes from everyday life of the Zavala family, who are reflective of this social elite, revealing the frivolous life of this social class. In one scene, Santiago Zavala brings home his wife Ana so he can introduce her to his family for the first time. Ana is from an inferior social class and Santiago’s mother is unable to hide her dislike for her, claiming that she cannot accept the idea that her son is “married to a woman who could be his maid” (Kirk, 1977). The character, Santiago Zavala (who in fact resembles Mario Vargas Llosa), tries to break away from the shallowness that characterizes his family and the elite, and his family ends up resenting him for rejecting their many privileges (Kirk, 1977).
Discovering the widespread corruption in Peru, Santiago says that the wealthy have no “political ideas,” they have only “political interests.” So, these people are not troubled by principles, ideals, or social justice. For example, a military officer observes that Santiago’s father, Fermin Zavala, supports the government only to "'do business," and another character replies, "'We're all with the government out of convenience...I'm not paid to believe; I'm paid to do my job” (Rossman & Llosa, 1987). So, their real concern and purpose is to do whatever it takes to support Odría’s power, and their own. Yet, although it seems as though Vargas Llosa’s focus is to criticize and reveal the dishonesty of the upper-middle class, it is also important to note that the conclusions made about the elite are equally made about all other social classes in Peruvian society. For example, the book shows how even people in lower social classes exploit and mistreat those they consider their social inferiors. So, the general theme of the novel seems to be how corruption can reach areas and people far from politics, and the distressing state of contemporary society in Peru. Apart from social structure, institutions like the church and the government are also focused on and harshly criticized in terms of censorship and corruption. Therefore, all aspects of national life portrayed in the book are used to show the breakdown and a loss of hope for a better Peru (Kirk, 1977).
Conversation in the Cathedral is a source that offers an extensive portrayal of Peru’s history and society under the 1950s dictatorship. However, it also allows the reader to close the book with a profound understanding of the features of society that are not typically shown in textbooks and that influenced Peru’s contemporary history and culture. Although Conversation in the Cathedral focuses on Peru, it also gives a general idea of the panorama in Latin America during that period with some other dictatorships being in the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, in Cuba under Fulgencio Batista, and in Paraguay under Alfredo Stroessner (Pérez-Nievas, 2020). This novel, and other books by Mario Vargas Llosa, such as The Feast of the Goat (2000), show the reality of several Latin American societies and aspects important to understanding their current obstacles relating to issues of corruption, social structures, and present autocratic regimes.
Other recommended books by Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Time of the Hero (1963)
The Green House (1965)
The War of the End of the World (1981)
The Feast of the Goat (2000)
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Goodreads. (2005). Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa. Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53970.Conversation_in_the_Cathedral
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Parra, J. I. (2020, June 27). 50 años de “Conversación en La Catedral”, la gran obra de Vargas Llosa. [Conversation in the Cathedral, the great work of Vargas Llosa] El Tiempo. https://www.eltiempo.com/cultura/musica-y-libros/mario-vargas-llosa-celebra-los-50-anos-de-su-gran-libro-conversacion-en-la-catedral-511948
Pérez-Nievas, I. R. (2020, March 4). Dictaduras en América Latina. La Vanguardia. https://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/junior-report/20200226/473796480155/dictaduras-america-latina.html
Rossman, C., & Llosa, M. (1987). Mario Vargas Llosa's "Conversation in the Cathedral": Power Politics in a Corrupt Society. Contemporary Literature, 28(4), 493-509. doi:10.2307/1208313