Harsh Times: Vargas Llosa’s new Novel | Sunday Observer

Harsh Times: Vargas Llosa’s new Novel

9 January, 2022

Name of book: Harsh Times

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa

Translated by Adrian Nathan West

Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in 2021

‘Harsh Times’, the English translation of Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s new novel was launched recently. The original novel was published in 2019 in Spanish, and it brings us a serious political discussion on an infamous CIA backed coup that took place in Guatemala in the 1950s.

As we all know Vargas Llosa is one of the greatest Latin American writers and a master of political novel writing. 2010 Nobel Prize winning author Llosa, now 85, has written a few novels based on political situations in foreign countries such as Brazil, Ireland, Tahiti and the Dominican Republic. So it’s not any surprise that he ventured on to a coup in Guatemala through this novel.

A true story

The book focuses on the period between the 1954 CIA-backed coup in which President Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown and the 1957 assassination of his successor Carlos Castillo Armas, also as part of an international intrigue. Right at the beginning Vargas Llosa makes the point that Guatemala is little known to the Western world. There, he quotes from Winston Churchill:

“I’d never heard of this bloody place Guatemala until I was in my seventy-ninth year.”

Llosa excerpts this out of context. Churchill had made the statement when he felt it was not worth supporting Guatemala (over the Árbenz affair) if it meant jeopardising Britain’s relationship with the United States.

The basic story in the book follows the presidency of Jacobo Árbenz, his predecessor, Juan José Arévalo and his two successors, Carlos Castillo Armas and Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. However, readers first encounter two men – both US immigrants – Edward L. Bernays and Sam Zemurray – who, Llosa maintains, were the two most important people in Guatemala’s history.

Zemurray was the founder of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala and Bernays was the man who known to have invented public relations and who worked for Zemurray. The United Fruit Company was, in fact, a huge marketing place which made staggering profits selling Guatemalan bananas all over the world, and was financially linked to the Republican US Secretary of State, John Dulles, and his brother, Allen, director of the CIA.

Before electing as President, Jacobo Árbenz was a military man. To reach that position, he first became a Minister of Defence rising through the military ranks and rebelling against the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico. Then he won the Presidential election. As a President he had two main aims: agricultural reform and making the United Fruit Company pay taxes. His agricultural reforms aimed at giving the peasants land held by the rich which was not being used – he actually wanted to change the economic and social lives of millions of people gradually.

But as expected, these two decisions provoked huge opposition in Guatemala (by the rich) and in the US, where Edward Bernays, on behalf of the United Fruit Company, started a PR campaign “proving” that Árbenz was a communist, though, of course, the aim of the campaign was to make sure the United Fruit Company did not pay taxes. They had avoided paying taxes by bribing previous dictators. Bernays’ campaign was wildly successful, influencing the Eisenhower administration and, in particular, the Dulles brothers – John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and Allen Dulles, Head of the CIA.

They set up Operation PBSuccess, a coup d’état, masterminded by US ambasasdor to Guatemala, John Peurifoy. Peurifoy had been ambassador to Greece, where he had contributed to the defeat of the Communists and was determined to do the same in Guatemala, arriving in the country openly announcing his intent to get rid of Árbenz, which he did. Readers follow his story and like others whose story readers follow, Árbenz dies an untimely and violent death, something Vargas Llosa reports on with a certain amount of glee.

Taking sides

As most of the critics pointed out, Vargas Llosa is entirely partisan in this book.

According to ‘The Modern Novel’ web review, “He takes the now generally accepted view that Árbenz was planning to move Guatemala from being an essentially feudal state to a modern democracy along US lines. Far from being communist, he was very anti-communist. Guatemala had no political or commercial relationship with the Soviet Union, there were no Soviet citizens in the country and very few communists (far fewer than in the United States) and they had virtually no influence. His main reforms – taxing the United Fruit Company and his agricultural reforms – were entirely valid.”

The United States’ involvement in Guatemala should have been more democratic and sounder footing, but that led to extensive chaos, disruption, violence and a very undemocratic political system, which has more or less continued to this day in Guatemala. So the ‘The Modern Novel’ literary web review states, “What happened in Guatemala had a profound influence on other Latin American countries and led to uprisings elsewhere, including Cuba. (Che Guevara was in Guatemala at the time of the coup.)”

Writer with a history

In fact, to write a political novel, especially a novel based on solid facts in recent political history, it needs a great talent. Vargas Llosa has that talent, and also a familiarity with the subject. According to an interview given by him for NPR literary review, he was much interested in the events unfolded in Guatemala during 1950s:

“I remember very well. I was in Peru, very far away from Guatemala. And we were following what was happening in Guatemala with great enthusiasm, a democratic regime who was respecting the law and changing the structures of the country, you know, creating a new land for the peasants.”

However, critics also points out some flaws in the novel. For instance, Allan Massie, writing for scotsman.com website, singles out two flaws:

“First, Vargas Llosa sometimes describes the same incident twice, the second time from a different point of view, when we already know what has happened. This can be confusing. Second, there is a huge number of characters, and I would have found it easier to remember who is who if the publishers had supplied a cast list.”

He further notes, “One character who plays an important role is first introduced as ‘the Dominican.’ Forgetting the Dominican Republic (which actually plays a big part in the tragedy of Guatemala), I mistakenly took him at first for a member of the Dominican Order of Friars. Well, the Dominicans did some horrible things in the time of the Inquisition, but none as horrible as some of what this character does – though, one should add, Vargas Llosa treats him so truthfully that one may come to have a certain sympathy for him.”

Deep human sensibility

Writing for Guardian Edward Docx says, “Sure, this novel isn’t Vargas Llosa’s finest.” But at the same time he praises the book as well:

“…. it is replete with his deep human sensibility; it swarms with life and a determination to tunnel down into the underlying truth of humanity. Power. Politics. Credos and dogma. Senseless, casual death. Hopeless, casual love. The perpetual cruelty that greed recycles. The intergenerational legacy of stupidity. The way humans continually end up running things to their own detriment. Our own detriment.”

As said earlier, writing a political novel balancing facts and fiction is a difficult task. It is too difficult when you illuminate the interior lives of characters regardless of their moral position. In that sense, Mario Vargas Llosa is a literary genius.