Conversation in the Cathedral

Mario Vargas Llosa

translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabasa
Faber & Faber 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 1993
Conversation in the Cathedral is a novel about power and politics in Peru in the early 1950s. Two of the characters meet in a cheap eating house (the "cathedral" of the title) and spend the afternoon talking about the past. The novel is basically encapsulated within their conversation, although we are only occasionally reminded of that (by interjections) and some events accessible only to the omniscient narrator are also included.

The structure of Conversation in the Cathedral is somewhat unusual. The vast bulk of the novel is dialogue, and a common occurrence is for different dialogues to be interlaced together at the sentence level, without overt marking, in a kind of counterpoint. As well as this there is a kind of hierarchical layering, with events described in conversations themselves recounted within the meta-conversation that spans the novel. The narrative jumps around in time continually, with significant events happening in the middle of the story chronologically not recounted until near the end of the book. The result of all this is an almost "fractal" narrative.

Despite the complicated structure Vargas Llosa's novel has a very compelling feeling of movement to it (perhaps the "harmony" provides the driving force), and once I got into it I found it completely engrossing. It also presents the clearest picture of how a Latin American military dictatorship actually works that I've ever seen. Conversation in the Cathedral is not only the most enjoyable novel I've read for years, it is also the most impressive.

October 1993

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%T Conversation in the Cathedral
%A Vargas Llosa, Mario
%M Spanish
%F Rabasa, Gregory
%I Faber & Faber
%D 1993
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0571168825
%P 601pp