People who haunt the "Books" view on Pun Salad know that my fiction tastes tend toward the low-middlebrow. I'm even being self-charitable with that. But I came across a Jay Nordlinger column at NRO that raved about The Feast of the Goat by Nobel Prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa. With praise like this:
And let me tell you: I don’t know of a book that captures more precisely — more searchingly, more deeply, more perfectly — what a dictatorship is, and what a country in the thrall of a dictator is, than this novel, The Feast of the Goat. It is a masterpiece of thought, understanding, and writing.
OK, I can break down and read some highfalutin literature once in a great while. And, of course, Mr. Nordlinger is on-target. The book is only semi-fiction: many of the characters were real, and many of the described events actually happened. I'm nowhere near the expert Mr. Nordlinger is on dictatorships, but Llosa masterfully describes the terror, sycophancy, and horrific arbitrariness involved in despotism, whether in Russia, Germany, China, or some dinky half-island nation.
It's set in the Dominican Republic, and it's centered around the rule and demise of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, dictator and an all-around corrupt, vain, and murderous asshole. Through much of the book, three plot threads are intertwined.
In the first (entirely fictional), middle-aged Urania Cabral returns from her 35-year self-exile to see her decrepit father. She's now a successful globe-trotting World Bank executive, but she hasn't communicated with anyone on the island since leaving in 1961. Gradually, we learn her story.
The second thread follows Trujillo on the last day of his evil life. (Sorry, I guess that might be a spoiler.)
And finally, the anti-Trujillo plotters are followed, concentrating on the assassins waiting to ambush the dictator as his car travels a predictable path on a country highway. Lesson to would-be tyrants: don't be predictable. Lesson to would-be tyrannicides (also a slight spoiler): have a solid backup plan just in case one of your co-conspirators gets cold feet after the assassination.
The book jumps around in time, so you have to pay attention. Disconcertingly, flashbacks occur with no typographical clues whatsoever other than a paragraph break, so you really have to pay attention. A little disconcerting, but I got used to it. Sensitive readers might be triggered by graphic descriptions of torture, murder, and rape. These are meant to be revolting, and are.