Conversation in the Cathedral – DNF

People are collapsed at the base of the monument and around them a dung heap of cigarette butts, peels and paper; on the corner people are storming the run-down buses that become lost in dust clouds as they head to the shantytowns; a policeman is arguing with a street vendor and the faces of both are hateful and discouraged and their voices seem to be curled by a hollow exasperation. – from Conversation in the Cathedral –

Conversation in the Cathedral by Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa is set in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odria. The primary character is a man named Santiago, who runs into a man from his past named Ambrosia and they re-connect. I didn’t get very far in this book, sadly. I read to page 63 before quitting in frustration. There were several reasons I did not finish this book:

  • The writing is almost stream of consciousness and there are no quotation marks delineating when dialogue begins and ends. I found this very confusing as the characters move back and forth from speaking to “thinking” and I was never sure when actual speech was happening, not to mention who was actually speaking.
  • There are many references to the political problems in Peru. Most are subtle, yet the plot seems to rely on the reader having some knowledge about the government and history of the country. I don’t have any knowledge of the time, place or historical references…and so I felt lost early on.
  • There are numerous characters who seem to go by more than one name. Within 30 pages, I had no idea who was who and how they were related. I kept paging back, trying to see if I had missed something which could give me direction, but I was still a bit confused.
  • Within 10 pages a dog is beaten to death at the animal pound. I am aware that this probably does go on in some countries…but the detailed description just made me ill and I was afraid there was going to be more of this kind of thing throughout the book.

The back of the book reads: “Through a complicated web of secrets and historical references, Mario Vargas Llosa analyzes the mental and oral mechanisms that govern power and the people behind it.” I think the emphasis should be on the word “complicated.”

I really wanted to read this book because I have heard great things about Llosa. But, I am afraid this one was well over my head and thus felt like work rather than enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a book that makes me think…but this one just left me feeling like I didn’t have a clue what was going on.



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    • Laura on March 21, 2011 at 17:36

    Oh boy, not good. I don’t blame you for dropping this one, Wendy. I hope your next read is better!

  1. I don’t like stream of consciousness or the lack of quotation marks, so this probably isn’t the book for me either.

  2. I hate books that don’t use quotation marks! It drives me crazy.

    Was this book a translation? Mayhaps the transition from one language to another made the book worse.

    • Emily on March 21, 2011 at 22:19

    Sorry this book didn’t work for you, Wendy!

    I’m about halfway through, and enjoying it now although I did get off to a rocky start with it (primarily because of the graphic dog-murder and the unrepentant sexual assault/drugging of Amalia in Chapter 2). The style of narration took me about 50 pages or so to get oriented to, but after that I found it pretty gripping—the characters’ relationships become clear after a while, although the staggered, overlapping conversations still take a bit more concentration than average. I did look up Odría on Wikipedia & read a little bit about him so I could have a basic chronology for when different events were happening. Anyway, thanks for giving it a shot! 😛

  3. Oh no! I haven’t tried Llosa, but Feast of the Goat is on the list for next month. I hope I have better luck with it than you did.

  4. That bit about the dog would have had me throwing the book across the room, so I can see at once why you abandoned this one. I will not be picking this up.

  5. Stream of consciousness always puts me off. It’s exhausting.

    I want to visit characters’ minds, not live there.

    • Alyce on March 22, 2011 at 08:16

    I think you were completely justified in quitting this book (especially with the part about the dog).

    • Julie on March 23, 2011 at 05:09

    Ugh. I hate it when books give detailed descriptions of animal (especially dog) abuse. The images in Carolyn Parkhurst’s book from several years ago – The Dogs of Babel – still haunt me.

    I guess it could be a testament to the quality of the writing – it gets us to react (isn’t that the point?), but it is just too sad for me.

    Hopefully your next read will be better!

    Julie @ Read Handed (

    • Kim on March 23, 2011 at 12:57

    Yuck on all counts! I totally would abandoned it for all the same reasons. There are just too many other great books out there to take its place in a reading line up….

    • EL Fay on March 27, 2011 at 15:51

    I quite at around 60 pages too. WTF is this book supposed to be about? THANK YOU FOR VALIDATING ME.

    • Wendy on March 28, 2011 at 06:04

    Laura: You would HATE this one!

    Kathy: Stream of Consciousness is one of those things that I think is REALLY hard to pull off – and this one just did not work for me.

    Colin: Yes, this was a translation … And I wondered if some of its problem was just that (although I often read translations that I love).

    Emily: I tried! I’m glad you ended up enjoying the book more than I did 🙂

    Jackie: I also have Feast of the Goat in my stacks to read – so I’ll watch for your review of it (*keeping fingers crossed!*)

    • Wendy on March 28, 2011 at 06:08

    Heather: I HATE when dogs get killed in books (actually whenever there is animal abuse it infuriates me)…that alone was enough for me to stop – but I persevered a bit further in the hopes the book would redeem itself. No such luck.

    Shelley wrote: I want to visit characters’ minds, not live there. EXACTLY! I couldn’t have said it better!!

    Alyce: Yup – I agree! I just couldn’t see spending any more time on it.

    Julie: I know what you mean – I suppose getting an emotional reaction means the writing is effective – but really, even a badly written scene of animal abuse would get a reaction from me!

    Kim: Absolutely – I have a stack of books I am DYING to read!!!

    El Fay: LOL – your comment made me laugh! Glad to see I was not alone in my complete confusion and dislike of this book!!

    • Eva on March 30, 2011 at 03:38

    Sounds like this is definitely one to drop! I hate it when authors don’t use quotation marks, lol.

    • Wendy on April 3, 2011 at 06:39

    Eva: Oh, it was such a difficult book to get into…

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