Mario Vargas Llosa and the Age of the Strongman

His novel “Harsh Times” examines power and conspiracy at a crucial point in Latin American history.

Credit…Edel Rodriguez

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By Hari Kunzru

HARSH TIMES by Mario Vargas Llosa | Translated by Adrian Nathan West

“In Latin America,” wrote the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in 1984, “a writer is not just a writer. Due to the nature of our problems, to a very deep-rooted tradition, to the fact that we have a platform and a way to make ourselves heard, this is, also, someone from whom an active contribution is expected in solving problems.” Elsewhere, he has written that “literature does not describe countries, it invents them,” and as one of the key figures of the Boom, the explosion of Latin American writing onto the world stage during the 1960s, he has helped to shape a sense of identity that transcends national borders. “Among the things I learned” from literature, he explained in a speech in Madrid in 2012, was to “feel Latin American, to discover that, in Peru, I was only a small part of a community that had very large common denominators, not just language, but also history and social, political problems.”

Two interconnected problems have confronted Latin American writers since the end of European colonialism — the often malign influence of the United States and the system of rule by authoritarian strongmen known as caudillismo. “A cross between a superhuman and a jester,” Vargas Llosa explained in an essay on the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, “the caudillo makes and unmakes things at his will, inspired by God or by an ideology in which socialism and fascism — two forms of statism and collectivism — are nearly always confused, and communicates directly with his people through demagoguery, rhetoric and multitudinous, passionate shows of a magical-religious nature.”

In his superb novel “The Feast of the Goat” (2000), Vargas Llosa conjured the inner life of Rafael Trujillo, the psychopathic caudillo who terrorized the Dominican Republic for 30 years until his assassination in 1961. In “Harsh Times,” published in Spanish in 2019 and now ably translated by Adrian Nathan West, he has turned his attention to Guatemala, and the consequences of the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected government in 1954.

Guatemala is of course one of the so-called banana republics, whose national politics were subjugated for much of the 20th century to the interests of the United Fruit Company. In an introductory chapter, Vargas Llosa sketches the unlikely alliance between Sam Zemurray, United Fruit’s ruthless self-made president, and Edward Bernays, the propagandist often called the “father of public relations,” whom Zemurray hired to improve the image of the company in the United States. Bernays traveled to Guatemala and concluded that the newly elected government of Juan José Arévalo was in no danger of turning communist, but that land reform threatened the company’s bottom line. He put into action a media strategy intended to paint Arévalo, and later his successor, Jacobo Árbenz, as Soviet puppets, and to gather support for regime change.

Having set the scene, Zemurray and Bernays leave the stage, and the novel settles down to the events of the coup and its aftermath. At its center is a woman known as “Miss Guatemala,” Marta Borrero Parra, a young beauty who carves a path through the tumult, ending her days in well-heeled exile in the United States. As a mistress of Carlos Castillo Armas, the dictator installed by the Americans, and later as a radio propagandist for Trujillo, she is one of a number of characters who link “Harsh Times” to “The Feast of the Goat,” most notably Trujillo’s intelligence chief, Johnny Abbes Garcia, who is dispatched by El Jefe to get close to Miss Guatemala, and keep tabs on developments inside the presidential palace.

Vargas Llosa’s route through this tangle of conspiracy is nonlinear. We see the events — whose outcome is a matter of historical record — from various angles, first in a rather telegraphic historical overview, and then from the viewpoints of various participants. Sometimes Vargas Llosa resorts to what has become a signature technique, interleaving conversations that take place at different times, so that we see Trujillo, for example, simultaneously receiving Castillo Armas in his office and complaining about the Guatemalan’s ingratitude to Abbes Garcia. The effect is prismatic; the reader is caught up in the swirl of history, privy to secrets but also unbalanced, buffeted around.

The gravitational pull of Trujillo and his gang of monsters on the narrative is so great that the Guatemalan presidents, the well-meaning Árbenz and preening Castillo Armas, often recede into the distance as the author becomes consumed once again with the grotesque Dominicans. Indeed, “Harsh Times,” which covers the same years as “The Feast of the Goat,” is not so much a sequel to the earlier book as an expansion of it, the new novel interwoven with the previous one, filling in gaps and deepening our understanding of characters like Abbes Garcia. One could imagine a whole constellation of caudillo narratives, in which Vargas Llosa presented the Cold War history of Latin America as a single vast web of conspiracies and assassinations.

Like many Latin American intellectuals, Vargas Llosa began his career sympathetic to the aims and ideals of the revolutionary left, but by the 1980s he had become a champion of free markets and political liberalism, standing as a center-right presidential candidate in the Peruvian presidential election of 1990. More recently, his rightward drift has become more pronounced, and in 2014 he joined the Mont Pelerin Society, the organization founded by Friedrich Hayek in 1947 that has become famous as the incubator of the political philosophy known as neoliberalism. Naturally, Vargas Llosa’s interpretation of the turbulent politics of the early Cold War is informed by his own politics. In an interview with El País, given on the occasion of the publication of “Harsh Times,” he identified the C.I.A.-sponsored coup against Árbenz as the moment that persuaded many young Latin Americans that the United States would never allow genuine democratic change, and that communism was the only possible route to liberation, paving the way for the decades of hemispheric guerrilla conflicts that followed. His anger at the Americans for crushing the liberal democratic aspirations of his generation is tempered by his anti-communism, and his conviction that open markets are a precondition for other kinds of freedom. The result is a book with few heroes and many villains, pulled on by a pervasive undercurrent of despair.

From the brutal history of Guatemala, hazy enough in the North American imagination for “banana republic” to seem like an appropriate name for a clothing store, Vargas Llosa has constructed a compelling and propulsive literary thriller, deeply informed by his experience as a public intellectual and a practicing politician. The Latin American novelist and the caudillo will always be mortal enemies, each one attempting to invent or dream into being a future that excludes or suppresses the other. In “Harsh Times,” Vargas Llosa has pulled back the curtain on a terrifying world of cynical realpolitik, and in a certain sense, has had the last word, demonstrating that no matter how powerful a dictator may be, ultimately his legacy will be shaped by writers.

Hari Kunzru’s latest novel is “Red Pill.”

By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Adrian Nathan West
288 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

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