By Mario Vargas Llosae
This book was published in America two years before we invaded Iraq, but Vargas Llosa's gothically clinical vivisection of a dictatorship and the completeness with which it defiles everything around it evokes the grisly saga of Saddam Hussein's reign and its blood-riven aftermath. The primary protagonist among some half-dozen deftly interlocking characters is Urania Cabral, a 49-year-old World Bank official who returns to the Dominican Republic for the first time since she fled her natal island and its then ruling monster, Rafael Trujillo, at the age of 14. Urania's odd name irritates, haunts, and ultimately suits her. Like the planet, she is dark, distant, and formidably obscure. Like the radioactive element, she is not to be toyed with or touched. And like the first god of the Grecian heavens, she is a kind of castrato, the victim of a terrible betrayal at the hands of those she loved. This novel is brutal through its midsection, and its graphic scenes of torture are almost unreadable, yet by the end we, like Urania, can sense the first tremblings of hope.