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Conversation in the Cathedral

December 2nd, 2010

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A Haunting tale of power, corruption, and the complex search for identity Conversation in The Cathedral takes place in 1950s Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría. Over beers and a sea of freely spoken words, the conversation flows between two individuals, Santiago and Ambrosia, who talk of their tormented lives and of the overall degradation and frustration that has slowly taken over their town. Through a complicated web of secrets and historical references, Mario Vargas Llosa analyzes the mental and moral mechanisms that govern power and the people behind it. More than a historic analysis, Conversation in The Cathedral is a groundbreaking novel that tackles identity as well as the role of a citizen and how a lack of personal freedom can forever scar a people and a nation.


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Science Fiction A Haunting tale of power, corruption, and the complex search for identity Conversation in The Cathedral takes place in 1950s Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría. Over beers and a sea of freely spoken words, the conversation flows between two individuals, Santiago and Ambrosia, who talk of their tormented lives and of the overall degradation and frustration that has slowly taken over their town. Through a complicated web of secrets and historical references, Mario Vargas Llosa analyzes the mental and moral mechanisms that govern power and the people behind it. More than a historic analysis, Conversation in The Cathedral is a groundbreaking novel that tackles identity as well as the role of a citizen and how a lack of personal freedom can forever scar a people and a nation.
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  1. Anonymous
    December 4th, 2010 at 13:21 | #1

    Rating

    This is a bleak book – some readers may find it too negative and depressing. It is very intense, brilliantly designed, with a wonderfully complicated structure that slowly unravels into a quite awesome piece of fiction that deserves favourable comparisons with the greatest 19th century classics. If Flaubert had tried to combine Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment it might have been a bit like this – but not as good!

  2. Anonymous
    December 5th, 2010 at 11:06 | #2

    Rating

    Conversation in the Cathedral is a novel of power and politics in 1950s Peru. Two of the main characters meet in an inexpensive restaurant (the “cathedral” of the title) and spend the afternoon conversing about the past. The novel is, for the most part, encapsulated within their conversation, although we are occasionally reminded of some events accessible only to the omniscient narrator.

    While somewhat unusual, the structure of Conversation in the Cathedral is most impressive. The vast bulk of the book is dialogue, and a common occurrence is for different dialogues to be interlaced at the level of the sentence with no overt marking in a kind of point and counterpoint. There also exists an hierarchical layering, with events described in individual conversations recounted within the meta-conversation that spans the entire novel.

    The narrative includes many jumps in time, with significant events that take place in the middle of the story often not being recounted until near the end of the book. The result is an almost “fractal” narrative, but one that is singularly impressive.

    Despite its somewhat complicated structure, Conversation in the Cathedral has an irresistible feeling of movement and once readers become used to Vargas Llosa’s sophisticated style, the book becomes more than engrossing. Conversation in the Cathedral also presents the clearest picture of exactly how a Latin American military dictatorship actually works.

    While all of Vargas Llosa’s books rate five stars, Conversation in the Cathedral is certainly his most impressive.

  3. Guillermo Maynez
    December 5th, 2010 at 17:31 | #3

    Rating

    This is what the main character, Zavalita, and the author, try to find out in the book: how, when, where, why, Latin America went wrong. It is a political, social and personal novel. Without a clear answer, of course, Vargas Llosa boldly exposes before our eyes the crap, the misery, the injustice and the depravation that rule life in most parts of our continent. He is unsparing, cruel and realistic. The lives of Santiago Zavala and Ambrosio Pardo meet time and again through a conversation in “The Cathedral”, a bar in Lima, Peru. As they tell to each other their stories, they tell the story of Peru in those years. Zavalita is an upper-middle class journalist, the son of a politician, who resigns his social position for idealistic reasons. He is a loser because he refuses to fit in a world like that, where in order to succeed you have to be a part of corruption, pervertion, and immorality. He prefers to be marginalized and isolated.

    To tell a chaotic story, Vargas Llosa uses a complex style: jumps in time, different voices from separated times speaking simultaneously. But it is not a hard reading, once you get used to it. The author is superb at eliciting suspense, progressive revelations that give an additional clue into the whole picture. It is fascinating how he reproduces the way people talk in an informal conversation at a bar. Think about it and try to remember your conversations with friends, when sharing a complex story.

    If the style is great, the substance is chilling: it is a glimpse into the reality most of us refuse to acknowledge. Wherever you live, you will recognize people in almost every character. While MVLL is an excellent writer, this is definitely one of his best. It is certainly one of my favorite novels of all times, and I strongly recommend it.

  4. Sebastian Fernandez
    December 6th, 2010 at 10:29 | #4

    Rating

    When one of the best contemporary Latin-American authors says “If I could only save from the fire one of the novels I have written, I would save this one”, you know that the experience of reading this work has to be invaluable. In this novel, the author explores, through the use of some fictional characters, the effects of the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odria in Peru. One of the aspects that shocked me and that I still find surprising is how well the impact of these terrible events translates to other dictatorships that occurred later in the Latin American history.

    Vargas Llosa uses a very difficult style throughout this novel, since he jumps back and forth through time and space, and also changes continuously among the viewpoint of different characters, without warning the reader about what is going on in each case. It does take some getting used to in order to fully enjoy the novel, but once you achieve this, the rewards are abundant and leave us satisfied. In this regard, it may help to read “The Time of the Hero” first, since in this book the author uses a similar technique, but keeping it a little simpler.

    I have heard some of my friends and family complain about Vargas Llosa’s style in this work, saying that the author is just trying to be fancy with his writing when there is no need for it. I do not agree with this; I think that the point the author is trying to make through his convoluted technique has to do with the frustration that people feel during a dictatorship and he wants you to feel some of it too when you are going through the experience of reading about it. But also, the author knows that you are going to have to give the book your full attention if you want to understand it, so his style helps assure that you will grasp his point.

    In my opinion, there is only one other book that can compete with this one for the best Latin-American novel of all times, and most people can probably figure out pretty quickly that I am referring to “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. I am not sure which one comes on top, but I know for sure that I would not want to have to make a choice in terms of which of the two to save from the fire!

  5. JAK
    December 7th, 2010 at 02:14 | #5

    Rating

    This a difficult , confusing book.That is because the narrative structure is non-linear and not given towards explanations.At times it is impossible to figure out who is speaking and what is going on.Often novels with non traditional narrative structures are merely irritating.You feel like telling the author get on with it and make your point or tell your story.Stop trying to show me how clever you are, I don’t care.That is a criticism that would make no sense here.The form is an integral and effective aspect of the novel not a gimmick.You are presented with a Peruvian panorama taking in various races and classes.However the focus is really on the country’s upper middle class who are shown as corrupt , snobbish and to be , not really a bad lot.I would say that the most evil character in the book- Don Cayo – isn’t that evil.He has a kind of Hannah Arendt Nazi quality to him.He believes in nothing and you can’t figure out why he bothers.He’s just good a being an enforcer.In fairness he seems to want to avoid extreme violence when possible.Not some one you particularly want to have around but there are far worse than him out there.In this novel , Vargas seems to have come to terms with the realities of his country or maybe society in general.It’s an understanding that some will find cynical but that misses the point.It’s my impression that with this novel ,Vargas was thumbing his nose at Left and Right alike.Religion is useless and Marxism pretty much a waste of time.There aren’t solutions.That doesn’t mean all is despair , it means we have to look at what we see and deal with it, not transform it into ideological fairytales .

    I should add this is a fascinating , compulsively readible book.I’d been thinking about reading it for years .I’m glad I finally got around to it.

  6. Dick Johnson
    December 7th, 2010 at 08:08 | #6

    Rating

    Another example of screwed up Latin American politics and corruption with a required lack of understanding for the first hundred pages or so.

    If you aren’t used to non-linear story telling: linear – this happened, then this happened, then…..;

    non-linear – this happened (sometime); this happened (some other time – maybe earlier, maybe later); this happened (could be later, could be sooner than anything else, could be any time in between, maybe). Simple – after 600 pages if you haven’t figured it out it doesn’t really matter – you’ve had a hell of a trip anyway.

    Sound like I’m being negative? I’m not – it was a blast. There are some real stinkers in here – and I liked some of them, disliked some and pretty much didn’t care about the others.

    This book is pretty heavy and bleak. You can read the Amazon description. If you are already in a bad mood, save this one for later. Imitation of the characters is not a healthy form of flattery or living.

  7. Alan Nocker
    December 7th, 2010 at 10:35 | #7

    Rating

    Llosa is a genius and this is one of his very best. As all other reviewers mentioned, it is difficult to get the drift initially but once you do it is a great feeling. The characters, plot and dialogue ring true throughout the entire 600 pages. The only problem for me was the translation. Several Peruvian and Limeñan phrases are translated almost literally. Although this slapped me in the face whenever it occurred it did not manage to spoil what is a wonderful book.

    Anyone who perseveres with and enjoys this should (if they haven’t already) read ‘The War of the End of the World’which is also a haunting novel.

  8. Darryl R. Morris
    December 10th, 2010 at 03:55 | #8

    Rating

    Santiago Zavala is the 30 year old son of a powerful Peruvian senator, who is estranged from his upper middle class family and eking out a meager existence as a investigational journalist in Lima. One day during an afternoon siesta his wife tells him that two black men snatched her beloved dog out of her arms, and he goes to the nearest pound to look for the animal. He finds the dog, and one of the men who took it is also there. Santiago quickly recognizes this man as his father’s former chauffeur Ambrosio, who has obviously fallen on hard times. Ambrosio takes him to a local dive, La Catedral, where they reminisce about their former lives over the remainder of the afternoon.

    The conversation is interspersed with other conversations that take place a few years before, during the dictatorial presidency of Manuel Odría (1948-56). Ambrosio was also formerly employed by the despicable and cunning Don Cayo Bermúdez, who was Odría’s Director of Security and Minister for Public Order and the enemy of the senator. Santiago had previously learned that Ambrosio had been accused of the brutal murder of Bermúdez’s mistress while he worked for Senatory Zavala, but Ambrosio reveals much more unsavory information about himself, the senator and Bermúdez, and the extent of the depravity of the Odría regime.

    Llosa gives us an unsettling and unforgettable view of the effect of dictatorship and corruption on individuals of all levels of Peruvian society during and after Odría. All are adversely affected, even Bermúdez, who profits more than anyone from the regime.

    This book was not an easy read, particularly in its first half, as the different conversations are woven together at times, which requires close attention and occasional review of previous pages or chapters. I’d encourage anyone who reads this book to be aware of this in advance, and to stick with it, as most of the latter half in the book does not use this technique, making for a faster read.

  9. Daniel Myers
    December 11th, 2010 at 01:08 | #9

    Rating

    I can see how this book could be off-putting to many a reader, as it was off-putting to me through a great deal of the reading of it. To begin with, there is Llosa’s style: Flashbacks, interior monologues, time-frame loops (often all in a single page!) – the whole Joycean, Faulknerian kitbag – so much so that, regarding the first half of the novel, I might suggest that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for the intrepid reader to use a pen – or perhaps pens of different colours – to mark off the different time-frames and narratives.

    And then there’s the setting and characters: Peru – 95% set in the capital, Lima – in the 1950s, a city of dreadful night indeed, a world of whores – lots of these – cutthroats, assassins, and, above all, slews of very poor people living in squalid conditions in shantytowns—oh, and a few rich families. In short, the way most of humanity lives, are living, as I write this, on less than a dollar a day.

    Fortunately, for the persevering reader, one gradually becomes accustomed to Llosa’s technique and the stylistic pyrotechnics slowly ebb away to an almost straight linear narrative at the end. Also, one realises how many layers the novel touches on: political, psychological, spiritual. I should say that – more than anything – it is a Bildungsroman of Santiago (read Llosa) and his disillusionment with Marxism, Capitalism – really any “-ism” and determination to shun the venality that makes the world around him a cesspool on so many levels. At the end, the reader feels that it is the most lovely life in the world to have a small apartment with books, a spouse and let’s not forget the dog with which the novel begins and ends.

    Of course, it’s not so simple; otherwise, this book would never have been penned. Santiago has tried to disencumber himself of the horrors of this world, even disowning his family, yet he lays bare the psychological scars of country and family for all to see here as if he is laying down a crown of thorns he has been wearing for his entire life.

    The Balzac quote at the beginning is quite apt and bears repeating. It’s left in the French in my copy, so the reader of this review will have to do with my perhaps somewhat clunky, though accurate translation:

    “One must have searched through all social life to be a true novelist, seen that the novel is the private history of nations.”

    The book accomplishes this feat astoundingly well. Indeed, the history revealed is so private that, fifty years on from the events in this book, I doubt you will be ingratiating yourself to the populace if seen on the streets of Lima with this book.

    It’s really a very lonely, frequently depressing book, filled with what Wordsworth called “the still, sad music of humanity.” Read it anyway.

  10. Anonymous
    December 11th, 2010 at 16:39 | #10

    Rating

    For better and for worse this novel has been the most influential literary work in my life. The novel raises discomforting lifelong themes and forces one to perceive events in multiple perspectives. It is bleak, it is strong, and it is remarkably well written.

  11. Anonymous
    December 13th, 2010 at 16:29 | #11

    Rating

    This is a great novel. At the beginning I found it a little hard to follow the story but once I got used to the author’s narrative style, I was spellbound.

    It is just amazing how much knowledge the author (in his early 30s when he wrote this novel) displays about Peruvian, and by extent Latin American, society and people’s psychology, especially those in positions of power (since this is also a political novel).

    The narrative revolves around the story of Zabalita, a journalist from an upper middle class background. Zabalita is essentially a rebel and idealist who renounces fortune and fame out of both political/ideological convictions and parental resentments. His own personal family deceptions and disappointments are somehow projected onto the whole Peruvian society (it is hard to tell the author from his personage).

    As it turns out, Zabalita’s misfortune is that the vices he resents in his family (his father is an important politician) are inextricably linked to those the author very ably depicts as taking place in Peruvian society as a whole. The author skillfully depicts this reality throughout the novel by showing us his other characters with all their vices; here we have the opportunistic, corrupt, deceitful and immoral politicians.

    Vargas Llosa greatly succeeds in narrating Zabalita’s misfortune and gaining adepts in his readers (at least in my case) to Zabalita’s cause. The climax of the novel comes towards the end of the book when Zabalita and the reader are revealed the darkest secrets of Zabalita’s father. This is the climax towards which the novel inexorably unfolded starting with the initial conversations, between Zabalita and one of the main protagonists, in the bar “The Cathedral”.

    What really makes this novel great is not only the substance of its subject matter but also, and perhaps most important, the way it is expounded. The author reveals his characters (their darkest secrets, their noblest actions and so on) in a very gradual way, eliciting in the reader suspense, and all kinds of emotions at every turn of a page. The way the author weaves his personages, treating one at a time and then relating them, with the way the story unravels makes it so hard to take a break from reading. This is as much a psychological novel as a social and a political critique, and a great one.

  12. Richard K. Woodward
    December 15th, 2010 at 00:24 | #12

    Rating

    I’m surprised there are not more reviews of this book on Amazon, as I consider it to be one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. The book is known for its complex narrative structure, but I found it surprisingly easy to navigate this once I got the hang of it. Vargas Llosa’s work is often compared to that of Joyce and Flaubert, but I think the most salient comparison is with Vargas Llosa’s self-proclaimed master, Faulkner – in particular, Faulkner’s novel Absalom! Absalom! Absalom, Absalom!: The Corrected Text (Modern Library) In fact, I would recommend reading the two books back-to-back. Both are fascinating and insightful studies of how the souls of men are corrupted. The central characters of the two novels, Cayo Bermudez in Vargas Llosa’s book and Sutpen in Faulkner’s, are men who have become evil due to the social evils (racism and class discrimination) that have damaged them in their youth. As such, both of these novels go beyond a simplistic, moralizing approach to politics and tyranny, showing us the (ruined) human side of the “beast.” For this reason, it is all the more remarkable to me that Vargas Llosa was able to create such an honest and incisive fictional portrait of young Marxists while at the same time writing the transparently propagandistic Marxist pieces that one can find in his collection of essays, Making Waves Making Waves: Essays.

  13. Diego Zlotogora
    December 15th, 2010 at 09:34 | #13

    Rating

    According to Mario Vargas Llosa, this is the only book he’d save in case he had to burn all his books. I personally enjoyed more “The feast of the goat” although the story is closely related. Both talk about Latin American dictatorships and everyday life as seen from the point of view of the elites (in this case the Zavala family) and of the “less-privileged” (Ambrosio, in the story). The book basically describes the different stages of Santiago Zavala’s life from his teenage years to adulthood. He’s a bohemian, who never finds his “place in the world” and sometimes seems very dull.

    The novel is written in a very complex way because in some chapters the dialogs of the characters are mixed up and you have to be very concentranted to understand who’s talking to whom.

  14. Brandon Wilkening
    December 16th, 2010 at 23:04 | #14

    Rating

    Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the most important living writers, and undoubtedly deserves his reputation as one of Latin America’s two great novelists. Conversation in the Cathedral is the first book of his I’ve read in several years. Like most great works of literature, this book is not a quick read. First of all, it is 600 pages, and second, Vargas Llosa writes in a style that is difficult to get accustomed to at first (more on that below). Conversation in the Cathedral is a book that requires a major time commitment, but the ultimate payoff is worth it.

    As far as the story, it takes place during Peru in the 1950′s during the Odria dictatorship. Ostensibly the story revolves around two old acquaintances who accidentally meet and over beers discuss their lives over the preceding years. These two characters are Santiago and Ambrosia. The former is a young journalist whose father was a senator and member of Peru’s upper crust elite. He has turned his back on his family’s wealth and connections, flirted briefly with Marxism at the university, and now works as a newspaper journalist. Ambrosia formerly worked as one of Santiago’s father’s servants, but was forced to leave Lima for reasons that become clear only very late in the book. The novel’s structure is somewhat complicated. First, it does not follow a linear narrative path. It frequently jumps around chronologically, and even after finishing the book I am not completely certain about the chronological order of events. Second, the story is told from multiple perspectives. Part of the story consists of the actual conversation between Santiago and Ambrosia, as the two interrogate each other about what they’ve been doing over the previous decade or so. Most of action is live, however, and it is told in both the first and third persons. The thing that makes this book (indeed, most of Vargas Llosa’s books) so slow going at times is his use of alternating dialogue. This often makes it difficult to ascertain who exactly is talking to whom, or what is happening. Especially for those readers who are reading Vargas Llosa for the first time, the first part of the book will go pretty slow, but the pace picks up considerable over the second half of the book.

    This book is powerful on many levels. First, Vargas Llosa is one of the most politically astute novelists around. Not only is he a passionate observer of politics, he has soiled his own hands in it, having unsuccessfully ran for Peru’s president a while back. Much of this book’s action revolves around political intrigues among the ruling establishment. One of the most intense and quickly paced sections of the book details a plot to overthrow the country’s hated security chief. Santiago’s own father, being an influential Senator, plays a central role in these conflicts. Overall, Vargas Llosa makes penetrating insights into the nature and functioning of authoritarian regimes. He realistically portrays the cynicism and moral corruption of authoritarian leaders, as well as the mechanisms for maintaining power. This book also explores the complex dynamics of race and class through the character of Ambrosia, a black man who has moved from job to job but knows Santiago from working for his father the senator. Another character through whom the issue of class is explored is Amalia, who also worked as a servant for Santiago’s family in the distant past and who later develops a relationship with Ambrosia. The depiction of this relationship provides some of the most heartrending sections of the book. Various parts of the book are told from her perspective, and they provide a very nice balance to the parts told from the perspective of high ranking political officials. Finally, through the character of Santiago, Vargas Llosa explores a number of themes. I even suspect that the character might have been inspired by the author’s own early life. Santiago is initially impelled by a rebellious impulse to dabble in Marxism and renounce the bourgeois lifestyle of his family and the politics of his father. He is soon disillusioned by Marxism, however, finding himself unable to commit to a single ideology so totally. At the time of his meeting with Ambrosia, he is a fairly cynical, albeit content low-profile journalist. Vargas Llosa writes powerfully about the conflict between Santiago and his family, who despite their aristocratic outlook are generally kind people and regard Santiago’s rejection of their lifestyle as a slap in the face.

    This far too lengthy review doesn’t due justice to the scope and power of this novel, which is populated by fascinating characters from all walks of life and which explores some of the most salient themes of modern life. I heartily recommend this work, although those who are looking for a somewhat lighter read might want to consider some of Vargas Llosa’s shorter works.

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