Analysis of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral

Historically and politically important, this novel by Mario Vargas Llosa (1936– ) is based on the social conditions in Peru during the eight-year dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría. Lima, the capital of Peru, is the central stage of the narrative, where characters from different social classes— government officials, capitalists, left-wing students, servants, prostitutes, workers—present scenes of corruption, conspiracy, political struggles between left and right wings, poverty, and failure. The narrative reveals both the scandalous facts of Peruvian society and the absurdity of life in which many Peruvians find themselves.

The major narrative mode is the conversation between Santiago Zavala, a journalist and son of Don Fermín, Lima’s famous capitalist, and Ambrosio, Don Fermín’s former driver. They meet at a time after Odría’s dictatorship and sit in a bar called The Cathedral to recall life during the past years and the fate of other characters in their lives. Their conversation forms a stream of dialogue to carry on various narrative threads involving the stories of different characters from various social backgrounds, all related to actual political events in Peruvian history. The stream of dialogue is a vehicle for many of Vargas Llosa’s novels, but this one carries the technique to its extreme, including the stories of more than 30 characters over a large time span and multiple places, all within one single conversation. To grasp the story in a concise way, the reader needs to follow the fate of the four central figures: Santiago, Ambrosio, Don Fermín, and Bermúdez.

Santiago Zavala, while a young left-wing student, abandons his inheritance and leaves his wealthy upperclass family to pursue an independent life seeking truth through revolution. He is actively involved in the political movement against Odría’s dictatorship, during which he and his partners are persecuted by Odría’s secret service, led by Bermúdez. Santiago’s father, Don Fermín, originally the financial supporter of the Odría government, maintains a friendship with Bermúdez until the Odría government encounters a fatal crisis on the political stage. Don Fermín’s driver, Ambrosio, has also worked as a secret agent for Bermúdez. Disillusioned after many failures in his political activities, Santiago leaves school, marries a nurse named Ana, and starts working as a reporter for the detective and criminal section of a local newspaper. He then meets Ambrosio during a search for Ana’s dog in a poor district of Lima.

Ambrosio is from a lower-class family whose father is a criminal. He seeks help from a friend from his youth, Bermúdez, after the latter becomes an official in the Odría government’s ministry of internal affairs. He serves as Bermúdez’s driver and hatchet man, directly handling his master’s dirty business, such as collecting “protection fees” from the brothels and dispersing political protests. Bermúdez later sends him to work as chauffeur for Don Fermín, who actually takes him as a homosexual partner. Ambrosio falls in love with Amalia, the maid of Bermúdez’s mistress, Musa. But when Musa threatens to reveal the sexual scandal between him and Don Fermín, Ambrosio kills her and runs away with Amalia to a remote town. Years later, after Amalia’s death, Ambrosio returns to Lima to a hardscrabble life, when he meets Santiago, the son of his former master.

Don Fermín Zavala is a representative of Peru’s upper class in the novel. His success in business and the capital he possesses provide significant infl uence in Peru’s political life. He uses his influence to help Odría come into power, but he also has a secret struggle with Odría’s hit man, Bermúdez. When he observes the change in Peru’s political situation, he turns to support the opposite parties and pushes Bermúdez out of office; then comes the end of Odría’s reign. While a respectful public figure, with an apparently happy family, Don Fermín maintains a homosexual relationship with his chauffeur, Ambrosio, whom he instructs to murder Musa, who has blackmailed him. Don Fermín likes the intelligent and hardworking Santiago best among all of his children, but because of their political differences, the father and the son never reconcile.

Cayo Bermúdez, the official of the ministry of internal affairs, starts off as a playboy during his youth. With the help of Ambrosio, he secretly marries a milk merchant’s daughter, Rosa. One of his high school friends helps Odría in the coup and later becomes minister of internal affairs in the Odría government. Bermúdez is then named an official in the ministry, and he later becomes the head of internal affairs. This figure is based on a real-life prototype, the Odría government’s actual minister of internal affairs, whom the young Vargas Llosa once visited as a student representative in order to help some students arrested by the police. This meeting impressed Vargas Llosa so deeply that he wanted to write the actual figure into a fictional work, which he was able to do in this novel.

The dictator Odría is not represented directly in this novel, just indirectly through Bermúdez. Under the Odría government, Peru is turned into a prison. Bermúdez has his own hatchet men in the form of his secret service, and he arrests and expels the progressive people, declaring them to be illegal and suppressing the officers who attempt to overthrow him. On the other hand, Bermúdez also lives a scandalous life. He abandons his wife Rosa; has a mistress, Musa, in Lima; and tries to seduce other men’s wives. He also uses his executive power to collect protection fees from local merchants. Following a sizable protest organized by the opposition parties, Odría is forced to dismiss Bermúdez from office, and Bermúdez flees abroad, taking chests filled with money with him.

This novel provides a panorama of Peru’s political situations involving the various social classes and multiple aspects of political scandal. It manifests both the author’s insight into the Peruvian society and the maturity of his insight and narrative skill.

Analysis of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Novels

Kristal, Efraín. Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.
Oviedo, José Miguel. Mario Vargas Llosa: A Writer’s Reality. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1985.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. A Fish in the Water: A Memoir. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1994.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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