I’m a little over halfway through Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral and thought I would drop in with some thoughts and observations.
This is a major early work for Vargas Llosa, his third novel (written when he was 33) and running to about 600 pages. Published in 1969, it grapples with what was then the recent past, the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría from 1948-56.
Conversation is where Vargas Llosa honed what has become his trademark technique—the mixing of various strands of time on the page, so that from paragraph to paragraph (and sometimes from sentence to sentence) we may jump from one temporal reality to another. This can be confusing, as sometimes a sentence being uttered by a character in, say 1950, is immediately followed by that same character saying something (to the same person even) in 1960. Needless to say, Vargas Llosa gives few cues as to these jumps, the reader generally having to figure it out through the texture of the stories being depicted.
Michal Greenberg sums it up well in The New York Review of Books:
Two characters will be engaged in a conversation, for example, during which thoughts, experiences, and prior conversations that relate to the current one are provoked in the characters’ minds. As the scene unfolds, these associations stitch into a unified narrative account. It’s a difficult, supremely modernist technique that Vargas Llosa has used throughout his career. When successful, it allows him to present a more or less seamless stream of concurrent realities and to bypass the cumbersome formality of flashbacks.
His social lens is wide, encompassing cholos (as the mixed-blood Indians of Peru are disparagingly called), businessmen, aristocrats, pimps, revolutionaries, foreigners, convicts, politicians, and artists in intertwining tales. His writing about Peru can be bitter, tinged with history’s cruelty . . .
Vargas Llosa also tends to do another thing that I would consider high modernist: he likes to hide significance in seemingly insignificant details. So for instance there will be a beautiful nightclub signer casually mentioned in the early pages, and some hundreds of pages later you will suddenly understand that this woman is the pansexual mistress of one of the central officials of the ruling dictatorship whose domestic life Vargas Llosa has been following for scores of pages.
While these techniques are interesting and add some excitement to Conversation, I would say that Vargas Llosa is firmly in line with the consolidators, not the innovators. Conversation is a fundamentally conservative novel. That is, by the time he wrote this book, such techniques had long since become common in modernistic fiction, and Vargas Llosa isn’t breaking any new ground. He’s simply employing decades-old innovations in his own idiosyncratic way toward the end of literary realism and something along the longs of political sociology.
I think the same could be said of Conversation as a whole. When you strip away the modernistic trappings, what you have here is a fairly conventional story: the main character is Santiago, son of a wealthy industrialist with connections to the upper echelons of Odría’s government. He has rejected his inheritance and gone to work at a newspaper as a journalist, and one day he runs across Ambrosio, a mixed-race dogcatcher who used to work for his and various other connected families as a driver. The two go into a dive called “The Cathedral,” where they have an epic, alcohol-fueled conversation covering the decade they’ve spent apart, which then forms the bulk of this book.
I keep comparing this book to a mob movie, because what we see most often here are depictions of how power gets exercised by Peru’s upper class. Conversation is filled with innumerable scenes of government officials leaning on newspaperman, disrupting (or calling) protests, conducting voter fraud, jockeying among one another for dominance, using the police as their personal henchmen, etc, etc, etc. This may be where the book is most interesting, in its understanding of how politics is practiced in Peru and its very lapidary depiction of the execution of various political schemes.
As much as Vargas Llosa should be commended for his grasp of politics and his ability to distill them on the page, this does, however, mean that Conversation’s main interest is sociological. At the moment I don’t feel that Vargas Llosa’s novel adds a whole lot that a history or an anthropological study of the same period would not. Santiago and Ambrosio are dutifully drawn as characters, but neither one seems to have a very rich interior consciousness. Their thoughts are boilerplace, what is required to fill the spaces the novel needs them to occupy, but not much more.
The other main strand of this novel is a maid named Amalia, an innocent who represents Peru’s lower classes, and who gets an education in worldliness by becoming employed with the aforementioned sexually ambitious mistress one of the governmental elite. I find her to be a slightly more compelling presence than Santiago, but not much more, definitely not enough to carry a 600-page novel.
And here we get to the crux of the matter: Conversation in the Cathedral is long. Because of Vargas Llosa’s formalist tricks, the book is a fairly arduous read, which makes those 600 pages feel even longer than they are. And I’m not sure that a 33-year-old Vargas Llosa quite had the necessary skill for a novel like this. At the moment, things are beginning to get repetitive. The names and dates are changing, but more or less the same thing keeps happening: Santiago laments his past, Odría’s men work the levers of power, Amalia becomes corrupted. For all of its modernistic trappings, the language is workmanlike—one goes on for pages here wanting an original image or some grouping of language that produces an original way of seeing the world.
Part of the problem here is that Conversation in the Cathedral is, by design, almost 100% past. To a large extent we know what is going to happen with these people and so the book is not so much about the plot resolving as it is about combing through the various strands that have brought about the present situation. This is the domain of Proust, and for a book like this to succeed, one requires an excellent eye for observing human beings, tack-sharp characterization, and some great capacity for original thought. In this book Vargas Llosa is not standing up to the challenge—it is not that he completely lacks what is called for, just that he does not have it the necessary amounts to support a 600-page, largely overdetermined novel (probably at 300 pages Conversation in the Cathedral would stand quite solidly).
This book is definitely most original and worth reading for its state-of-the-nation depiction of Peru in the ’50s. The ideas about a person’s identity (for which this book is often lauded) are run of the mill, and there is nothing in the perspectives of any of the characters that would challenge our everyday conceptions of who and what we are. To take, for instance Cortázar (with whom Vargas Llosa is often grouped), one of his short stories would surely contain many more original insights on the subject than the whole of this book and would feel more visionary as literature.