Conversation in the Cathedral is a novel about power and politics in Peru in the early 1950s. It is a history of Peru and Latin American dictatorships told in a conversation between two of the characters who meet in a cathedral, a bar and a cheap eating house.
Santiago is the son of an influential politician who, like so many idealistic young people in the ‘60s, has rejected his father’s corrupt if pragmatic world. Santiago is a minor editorial-page journalist.
One afternoon, at the insistence of his wife, he goes in search of the family dog. Dogs were being picked up as strays, even if they weren’t, because the dogcatchers got paid per animal.
At the pound Santiago runs into his father’s now-aging chauffeur, Ambrosio. The subject of their long conversation is the 16-year dictatorship of Manuel Odría who ruled Peru from 1948 until 1956, as Santiago seeks for the truth about his father’s involvement in a notorious murder of that era.
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.
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.
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.
Conversation in the Cathedral was originally published in 1969, when Llosa was 33, and translated into English in 1975. Llosa called it an attempt at a “total novel”: the complete fictionalization of an entire society.
Llosa may be, and indeed has been, criticized for his political beliefs and it was thought to be reason why he had not won the Nobel, despite being short-listed a number of times. He managed to pick the big prize just last week.
The Swedish Academy, announcing the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature award, said Llosa took this year’s prize for “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”