The author is Bolivian and therefore has perforce traveled widely due to periodic
moments of exile. The book is a somewhat stream-of-consciousness narration that lies
halfway between a novel and an autobiography. The author has obviously lived most of
the episodes narrated, many of which are vividly cruel. The novel is really “Bolivian”,
but expands out to include all of Latin America and, indeed, any other countries that fit
in the exposure of dictatorial injustice and torture. The dictatorship is known as La
Bestia (The Beast) and is never identified as any particular one. Von Vacano has lived
under many and even gives details of the Prado sugar-coated oligarchical dictatorship
in Peru.
The theme of the book can be deduced from the two epigraphs that begin it: “To
freedom, even if it only lasts 15 minutes”, and “This is fiction. It has to be fiction: I am
This mingling of fiction and fact, or fiction based on fact always gives the writer extra
emphasis in saying what he must say. His experience and reading is also broad and the
book is made more universal by references and comments on such as Hemingway,
Verlaine, and Ray Bradbury, all very cogently tied into the story itself.
The story concerns the life of a journalist, summarized in the expression “two cells and
three children”, as he counts his responsibilities. In many ways this novel has
condensed the idea behind Mario Vargas Llosa’s CONVERSATION IN THE
CATHEDRAL, which is the inside story of the Odria dictatorship in Peru. Von Vacano is
more eloquent perhaps in that his story can cover more people and places and all the
while it is autobiographical, which Vargas Llosa’s is not. Perhaps it is his being a
member of the fraternity of those who have suffered that makes the book more low-
keyed, subtle, less strident, and more effective. As I read it I thought that the narrator-
protagonist was very much like a character from Julio Cortazar’s A MANUAL FOR
MANUEL in the vagueness that only serves to underline the horror of the Beast.
The novel can be added to the growing shelf of fiction concerning dictatorship in Latin
America, which has most often been the best picture and explanation of a phenomenon
that politicians and historians fail to see in its true human light. This novel is very
interior and even Joycean at times and in that way shows the most important effect of
tyranny, which is the one it exercises on the individual rather than the amorphous
collective effects,
An extremely important aspect of the novel that is also related to the individual
impression just mentioned is the style, which is fluid and could be called “poetic” if that
term had not become such a cliché. It has a fine rhythm in Spanish, following the
essence of the language. I am reminded of the narrative style of Alejo Carpentier, who
also handled shifts and modulations so well. There should be no problem in making a
good, even lyrical translation of this book if the translator follows the author.
This book has many things of interest to the American reader and will be a valuable
addition to and subtle counterpoint for all the looks at dictatorship in Latin America (and
Gregory Rabassa on Biting Silence

A letter from Gregory Rabassa to
Sara Bershtel, of Pantheon Books
(November 21, 1981)