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Resurrecting Rafael: Fictional Incarnations of a Dominican Dictator

From: Callaloo
Volume 29, Number 1, Winter 2006
pp. 223-237 | 10.1353/cal.2006.0061

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Callaloo 29.1 (2006) 223-237

Fictional Incarnations of a Dominican Dictator

Richard F. Patterson

"¡Resucitá, machito! ¿Qué te cuesta?"
—Tomás Eloy Martínez

Just off the seaside highway leading west out of the city of Santo Domingo, the oldest European settlement in the western hemisphere, there is a memorial containing several pieces of sculpture and a plaque that reads:

MONUMENTO A LOS GLORIOSOS HEROES DEL 30 DE MAYO DE 1961.

HOMBRES DE ACERO, QUE ESA NOCHE LUMINOSA AJUSTICÍARON EN ESTE LUGAR AL DICTADOR RAFAEL LEONIDAS TRUJILLO MOLINA, PONIENDO ASI FIN A LA TIRANIA MAS HORRENDA DE TODA LA HISTORIA LATINOAMERICANA.

HONRAR A LOS QUE LUCHAN POR LA LIBERTAD, NOS AYUDARA A NO OLVIDAR SUS IDEALES.

"Monument to the glorious heroes of May 30, 1961. Men of steel, who that bright night executed in this place the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, putting an end to the most horrible tyranny in all Latin American history. Honoring those who fought for liberty will keep us from forgetting their ideals." The sign stands exactly where the man died, and its placement there was very much a part—the final part—of the history it succinctly records. Its inscription is the seminal Trujillo text (even if not chronologically the initial one) because it is both the last artifact of the Trujillo Era and the iconic beginning of Trujillo's resurrection in narrative. In Edward Said's sense of a beginning as "the first step in the intentional production of meaning"(5), the plaque marks the start of a particular process of interpretation that has become a small but persistent current in the long tradition of Caribbean storytelling. And if the storyteller is, as Edouard Glissant maintains, the "handyman, the djobbeur of the collective soul"(Poetics 69), the transformative production of meaning through narrative must be essential in societies where that soul has been withered by the dead hand of totalitarianism. In her postscript to In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Julia Alvarez remarks that the period of Trujillo's rule "can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination"(324). During the past few years three novels—Alvarez's, Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones (1998), and Mario Vargas Llosa's La Fiesta del Chivo (2000)—have contributed substantially to such an understanding. In each of them the artist has created a narrative structure that contains, reconfigures, and to a large degree demythologizes the man who exercised such corrosive control over Dominican life. Like the Caribbean folk tale (as characterized by Glissant), these works foreground "experience suppressed by decree or the law"(Caribbean 84), and in doing so perform a subversive and ultimately liberating function.

The three novelists come to the subject from rather dissimilar backgrounds. Danticat, a young Haitian-American, vividly evokes Trujillo's slaughter of Haitians in 1937, more than thirty years before her own birth. Alvarez fled with her family from the Dominican Republic to New York in 1960; her father had been a member of the same "June 14th" opposition movement in which the Mirabal sisters and their husbands were involved, giving her a personal link with the last days of the dictatorship. And Mario Vargas Llosa, a native Peruvian (now a Spanish citizen), approaches Trujillo from the vantage point of his own long experience with Latin American politics. But all of them had to confront two closely linked problems: how to conjure up an evil that had once grown in intensity and pervasiveness until it became almost unutterable; and more generally, how to incorporate into a fictional structure such a well-known and infamous man without simply rehashing the archives of history. An obvious strategic choice for each of them was to enclose the evil within the double boundaries of conceptual space made available through a displacement of narration: Danticat, Alvarez, and Vargas Llosa all tell stories of fictional characters who in turn tell their stories of Trujillo. Just as Marlow, telling the tale of Kurtz to his shipmates, mediates between the reader and Kurtz's "horror," so too do Danticat's Amabelle, Alvarez's imagined Mirabal sisters, and Vargas Llosa's Urania Cabral...



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