The Caribbean in 1961 is not the Mediterranean half a century later. Nevertheless, readers seeking to understand the decline and fall of authoritarian regimes – and the havoc they leave in their wake – could do no better than to start with a book set far afield from recent events in North Africa and the Gulf.

When Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature in Stockholm last December, the Swedish Academy cited his “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” In his acceptance speech Vargas Llosa paid tribute to fiction‘s power to inspire readers to greater ambition, to dissent and to political action. None of Vargas Llosa’s novels fits these words better than La Fiesta del Chivo (beautifully translated by Edith Grossman as The Feast of the Goat). In applauding his award, critics agreed that this searing portrait of the end of the rule of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was among the greatest of his works, perhaps the greatest. When it was published in 2000, La Fiesta del Chivo revived Vargas Llosa’s reputation after his disastrous foray into Peruvian politics.

The book stands out not only because of the author’s undoubted skills as a writer but also because of his painstaking research. In the latter 1990s Vargas Llosa came to the Dominican Republic and spent many months reading everything he could find about the years before and after the 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo, speaking to everyone who had played a part in the events and was willing to talk to him, including, not long before he died, a key player during – and especially after – Trujillo’s final years, Joaquín Balaguer.

La Fiesta del Chivo lays open the role of key political actors of the era: Trujillo himself, puppet-president Balaguer, chief enforcer Johnny Abbes García and each of the six assassins – or rather, as they are now universally regarded, liberators. In addition to the physical harm the regime wreaked through murder and torture on its real and imagined enemies (and often their families as well), he describes the mental destructiveness in which it excelled, in the form of character assassination and public humiliation. I know of no better insight into the inner workings of the caudillo regime, of the egomaniacal ruthless dictator sustained by a repressive state apparatus and compliant media.

Yet the book is not a simple historical narrative. Dramatic immediacy comes from Vargas Llosa’s building the story around the bitter reminiscences of the daughter of a leading Trujillo minister, later disgraced. As the story opens, Urania, who was spirited out of the Dominican Republic after being raped by Trujillo at the age of 14, has returned to the country 40 years later. The Feast of the Goat captures the ambivalent role played by the “international community”: the United States, Latin American neighbours and the Vatican. And it vividly – for some readers too vividly – portrays the abyss that opened and the depravity that surfaced when the regime’s head was cut off but the tentacles of oppression remained. Read alongside works of history, it helps us understand the rollercoaster ride toward democracy that the Dominican Republic underwent over the next 30 years, and the ambiguous but crucial role of Trujillo’s U.S.-supported successor Balaguer.

It is not only in his writing that Vargas Llosa has taken on real or would-be dictators. His books, we should not be surprised to hear, were banned by the regime of the Argentinian death squads. Yet Vargas Llosa’s main intellectual foil has been on the Latin American left, since he refused to make a distinction between left- and right-wing extremism. “Every ideology leads ultimately to fanaticism,” he has insisted. In taking on the Maoist fanaticism of Sendero Luminoso, Peru’s “Shining Path,” Vargas Llosa made no concessions to those who sought to temper criticism of their murderous actions by arguing that they were motivated by a struggle for social justice. Ironically, when he sought to oppose the growing power and influence of Shining Path in contesting the Peruvian presidency in 1990 as a liberal, he was defeated by the populist Alberto Fujimori, who promptly suppressed Sendero Luminoso and eliminated constitutional protections.

Vargas Llosa has since, probably wisely, kept his political interventions to the written and spoken word. But his influence has been growing, I am told, among younger Peruvians and Latin American intellectuals and opinion leaders for whom “liberal” is no longer a dirty word. The Nobel Prize can only enhance this welcome development.

— Henry Milner