Scott Simon speaks to author Mario Vargas Llosa about his new novel, “Harsh Times.” It’s set in the 1950s, around the events of the CIA-backed coup to overthrow Guatemala’s government.
The true story of Guatemala’s political turmoil of the 1950s as only a master of fiction can tell it
Guatemala, 1954. The military coup perpetrated by Carlos Castillo Armas and supported by the CIA topples the government of Jacobo Árbenz. Behind this violent act is a lie passed off as truth, which forever changes the development of Latin America: the accusation by the Eisenhower administration that Árbenz encouraged the spread of Soviet Communism in the Americas. Harsh Times is a story of international conspiracies and conflicting interests in the time of the Cold War, the echoes of which are still felt today.
In this thrilling novel, Mario Vargas Llosa fuses reality with two fictions: that of the narrator, who freely re-creates characters and situations, and the one designed by those who would control the politics and the economy of a continent by manipulating its history.
Harsh Times is a gripping, revealing novel that directly confronts recent history. No one is better suited to tell this riveting story than Vargas Llosa, and there is no form better for it than his deeply textured fiction. Not since The Feast of the Goat, his classic novel of the downfall of Trujillo’s regime in the Dominican Republic, has Vargas Llosa combined politics, characters, and suspense so unforgettably
Mario Vargas Llosa Returns to the Dictator Novel ~~~ The New Yorker
The Nobel laureate’s best work has studied the hazards of power. Does his latest book extend the streak?
By Jonathan BlitzerNovember 24, 2021
Vargas Llosa structured “Harsh Times” around the assassination of the Guatemalan President Carlos Castillo Armas, clearly intending to create suspense—but the result is mixed.Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher
There were two powers running Guatemala after the Second World War, and only one of them was the government. The other, an American corporation called the United Fruit Company, was known inside the country as the Octopus, because it had tentacles everywhere. It was Guatemala’s largest employer and landowner, and it controlled the country’s only Atlantic port, almost every mile of the railroads, and the nation’s sole telephone and telegraph facilities. U.S. State Department officials had siblings in the upper ranks of the company. Senators held stock. Running United Fruit’s publicity department, in New York, was a legendary adman who claimed to have a list of twenty-five thousand journalists, editors, and public figures at his beck and call. They formed, in his words, “an invisible government” with “true ruling power” over the U.S., to say nothing of the countries under American sway.
By 1952, the President of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, was fighting a battle he couldn’t win. He was trying to get United Fruit to pay taxes on its vast holdings. Not only had the company been exempt for decades—it had also secured a guarantee that it would never have to pay its employees more than fifty cents a day. To address the country’s rampant inequalities, including its feudal labor system, Árbenz passed an agrarian reform law to convert unused private land into smaller plots for peasants. A moderate institutionalist, he argued that the law reflected his capitalist bona fides. Weren’t monopolies considered anathema in the U.S., too?
In response, United Fruit unleashed a relentless lobbying campaign to persuade journalists, lawmakers, and the U.S. government that Árbenz was a Communist sympathizer who needed to be overthrown. It was the start of the Cold War, which made American officials into easy marks. “We should regard Guatemala as a prototype area for testing means and methods of combating Communism,” a member of Dwight Eisenhower’s National Security Council said, in 1953. Over the following year, the C.I.A. and the United Fruit Company auditioned figures to lead a “Liberation” force against the government. They eventually landed on Carlos Castillo Armas, a rogue Guatemalan military officer with dark, diminutive features and a toothbrush mustache, who came across as flighty and dim. (“He looked like he had been packaged by Bloomingdale’s,” one commentator said at the time.) His chief qualification was his willingness to do whatever the Americans told him. In June, 1954, after an invasion staged with American bombers and choreographed by the U.S. Ambassador, he was rewarded with the Presidency. Árbenz was flown into Mexican exile, but not before Castillo Armas forced him to strip to his underwear for the cameras as he boarded the plane.
The 1954 C.I.A. coup and its aftermath are the subject of “Harsh Times” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a new novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel laureate, which has been translated by Adrian Nathan West. At eighty-five, Vargas Llosa is no longer just a man of letters but a pundit, with a syndicated column, and his pronouncements on politics generate their own news—in Peru, in his adopted home of Spain, and across Latin America. The author has always been interested in the lures and predations of power. Of the nearly twenty novels to his name, some of his most memorable—“Conversation in the Cathedral” (1969), “The War of the End of the World” (1981), “The Feast of the Goat” (2000)—are studies of the psychological warfare wrought by politics. The man himself is no stranger to lofty ambitions. After becoming a vocal critic of Peru’s left-wing populist President in the late nineteen-eighties, Vargas Llosa ran for the job, in 1990, and lost. His wife at the time warned him that his motivations were not entirely pure. “The moral obligation wasn’t the decisive factor,” she said, as he gamely recounts in his memoir, “A Fish in the Water.” “It was the adventure, the illusion of living an experience full of excitement and risk. Of writing the great novel in real life.”
To the novelist and political aspirant, the events in Guatemala hold an undeniable interest, and the historical record supplies a detailed plotline. With the aid of U.S. government cables dislodged through years of public-records requests, journalists and historians have been able to reconstruct the operation, from the roles of the State and Defense Departments and United Fruit (“Bitter Fruit,” by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer) to the machinations of the C.I.A. (“Secret History,” by Nick Cullather). But Vargas Llosa takes up a subplot that remains murky: the murder of Castillo Armas, in 1957, and the part that Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, may have played in it. The official narrative was always suspicious. One night, in July of that year, Castillo Armas was walking with his wife through the courtyard of the Presidential palace when two shots rang out, and he fell to the ground, killed on the spot. Authorities pinned the murder on a supposedly left-leaning soldier inside the President’s security detail, who was found dead near the scene, in an apparent suicide. According to one of Trujillo’s biographers, a source close to the dictator once said, “The affair of Castillo Armas is one of those mysteries that Trujillo took with him to the grave.” For Vargas Llosa, that brush of possibility is the book’s animating spark.
Much of the novel is structured around Trujillo’s henchmen as they close in on their quarry. There’s Johnny Abbes García, the malevolent, sex-crazed director of Trujillo’s intelligence services, who stations himself at a hotel in Guatemala City, courts Castillo Armas’s mistress (“Miss Guatemala”), and creeps into the President’s inner circle. His man on the inside, a member of the Guatemalan security service, is a thug who respects Trujillo far more than his own boss. “He’s got a pair of balls as big as an elephant’s,” the man says of Trujillo. “We could use some of that around here.” Then there’s Mike Laporta, a C.I.A. man posing as a climatologist, who “couldn’t look more like a gringo if he tried.” In subsequent appearances, Laporta is referred to as the “strange gringo” and “the man whose name wasn’t Mike.”
Structuring the novel around the assassination is clearly meant to create suspense, but the result is mixed, partly because Castillo Armas’s fall wasn’t as significant as his rise. From the day he took the Presidency, he was essentially living on borrowed time. He was a kind of strongman manqué, with no real world view or angle of his own—nothing that, in novelistic terms, could pass for an unusual interior life. American Cold War orthodoxy made it easy on such operators; all they had to say to earn U.S. support was that they hated Communists. Even by that standard, though, Castillo Armas was a bit of a laggard. Vargas Llosa, having some fun at his expense, writes, “He told his men this often, in every meeting where they gathered in his office: ‘The gringos’ Puritanism makes them dawdle, and when they finally do take action, they move at a snail’s pace.’ He didn’t really know what he meant by that, but he felt proud of himself for saying it, and he considered it a weighty, philosophical insult.”
More promising characters, like Árbenz, survive their attackers but suffer in other ways. When Vargas Llosa introduces him, he’s just won the Presidency, in 1950, and needs a stiff drink: “His body was quivering, especially his hands. He had to clutch the glass in all ten fingers to keep it from falling and splashing whiskey all over his pants. You’re an alcoholic, he thought, scared. You’re killing yourself, you’ll wind up like your father.” Árbenz’s father, a Swiss pharmacist who immigrated to the western highlands of Guatemala, died by suicide when Árbenz was a child. The future President spent his early adolescence living with relatives, then enrolled in the national military academy, where he excelled. He became interested in politics only after falling in love with his future wife, a Salvadoran aristocrat who embraced social-justice causes. There’s a rich inner life here, and yet something indirect and secondhand shrouds the novel’s depiction of Árbenz. His thoughts are mostly restatements of the public record (“They would have to change the feudal structures that reigned in the countryside”), and his analyses are the same ones we’ve read in the history books. (“In essence, his responsibility was to keep politics from driving the army apart and to prevent incitement to conspiracy: the eternal story of Central America.”) In fact, almost all the characters in the novel suffer from the same problem. They act less like people than spokespeople, channelling the voices of journalists or historians who’ve told their story before.
The result is that “Harsh Times” covers a lot of ground without burrowing into the loam that might distinguish the book from a work of nonfiction on the same subject. There’s no shortage of dramas during these years from which to choose, and some of the more compelling plots get short shrift. In the final days of Árbenz’s Presidency, overwhelmed by the inexorable conspiracy against him, he jailed and attacked a number of his political opponents. He left Guatemala a broken man, and later drowned in a bathtub, in Mexico City, at the age of fifty-seven. Despite their alliance, the U.S. government and United Fruit eventually came into conflict. The 1954 coup (code name: Success) was the model for the Bay of Pigs invasion, in Cuba, a spectacular failure. And, following Castillo Armas’s assassination, the country lurched into more than thirty years of civil war, with a death toll that exceeded two hundred thousand.
The biggest problem with building the novel around the Castillo Armas plot is that it leads Vargas Llosa into rewriting “The Feast of the Goat,” the novel that he published, twenty years ago, about Trujillo. That book is a masterpiece, weaving together the story of the exiled daughter of a Trujillo loyalist with the plot of the three men who—in a combination of rage, desperation, and spasmodic courage—finally assassinated the dictator, in 1961. “Harsh Times” is not flattered by the comparison, yet it’s impossible to avoid at every turn. The same sorts of scenes and insights recur in pallid reprise: Trujillo’s affectedly stiff, machista bearing when he meets with underlings, Johnny Abbes’s baroque sociopathy. The structure of both books is also strikingly similar, with the assassination plot (and its aftermath) diced up and skillfully intercut from the different perspectives of those involved. In “The Feast of the Goat,” the assassins have to fight against their own internalized sense of powerlessness and fear, which evinces the binding psychic power of Trujillo. Castillo Armas’s assassins, by contrast, play a bit part. Their motivations (including Trujillo’s) are obscure to the end, and, since we know the President will die, it’s just a matter of waiting for the final shots to sound.
It’s possible that Vargas Llosa just wants to spend more time with his old characters. But it’s one thing to profile the deranged psychology of men in power, and another to bask in it. Take Abbes, whose life the novelist chronicles to the bitter end. When the man isn’t plotting murders, he’s mostly just getting off. His fetish for cunnilingus is matched only by Vargas Llosa’s compulsion to describe it over and over again, in language that is awkwardly blunt and stodgy. “You never change, do you?” Abbes’s inside man tells him. “Always the same thing: torture, women whose gash you licked or want to lick . . . . You know what you are? An obsessive. Not to say a pervert.”
Vargas Llosa has succeeded in one respect: he’s managed to identify an overlooked historical figure who very well could be the idiosyncratic, enthralling character the novel needs. The problem is that she’s cast less as a protagonist than as an object of lust for all the men in the book, including Trujillo, Abbes, Castillo Armas, and even the puritanical C.I.A. agent. Her name is Marta Borrero, better known as Miss Guatemala. She meets Castillo Armas when she’s twenty, and he falls for her immediately, installing her in her own house with servants, guards, and other luxuries. Abbes and the C.I.A. man befriend her, hoping to suss out information—but, since Borrero is intensely devoted to Castillo Armas, and is far from naïve, her openness to them never makes total sense. On the morning of the murder, when she realizes that something is afoot, it’s too late to warn Castillo Armas without implicating herself.
Minutes after the killing, one of Trujillo’s men whisks her off to El Salvador, where Johnny Abbes is waiting. He’s had designs on her all along, something she appears to accept now that she can’t return to Guatemala. They become lovers and move to the Dominican Republic, where Borrero embarks on an illustrious career as a right-wing political commentator, extolling the virtues of dictators across the region. One of her lodestars is Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, the successor to Castillo Armas and the Americans’ new man in Guatemala; this last endorsement is made to seem like a quid pro quo, in exchange for envelopes of money given to her by “the man whose name wasn’t Mike.”
The best part of the novel is the epilogue, in which the author offers an ostensibly nonfictional account of a recent visit he made to the U.S., where the real-life model for Borrero is living in unbothered old age. Her actual name stays out of the book, and Vargas Llosa situates her house between Washington and Virginia, “not very far from Langley.” But he is following real-life coördinates, established by the research of two of his friends, Soledad Álvarez and Tony Raful, Dominican writers who are mentioned in the book’s dedication. The novelist’s scrupulous vagueness flows from a writerly decorum that Borrero doesn’t appear to share. She keeps a blog, where she plies her old trade, asking, “What would have happened to Latin America if it hadn’t been for the armies?” Each day, Vargas Llosa writes, “she renders them homage” while fulminating against Communist cabals.
Almost instantly, as the pretense of fiction starts to fall away, “Harsh Times” comes alive. Borrero both is and isn’t what we might expect. Her house is a kind of aviary, thick with plants and full of tropical birds in cages, and she treats her guest with haughty, theatrical flair, dismissing Vargas Llosa’s notions as “preposterous fantasies.” Eventually, he becomes convinced that “it will be impossible to get anything more of value from her,” and he gets up to leave. She accompanies him to the door. “Don’t bother sending me your book when it comes out, Mario,” she tells him. “I will absolutely not be reading it. But I warn you, my lawyers will.” At last, there’s a meaningful tension: the author arrives armed with details and questions, and his subject, knowing that she has the upper hand of direct experience, mocks his effort to get at the truth of things. If only she’d challenged him sooner.