THE BUTTERFLY STOOL: AT THE CROSSROADS BETWEEN WESTERN AND JAPANESE DESIGN … pen

Created in 1954 by Sori Yanagi, this piece of furniture uses a moulded plywood technique that was novel at the time, devised by the Eameses.

© Wikimedia Commons – tomislav medak

Created in 1954 by Sori Yanagi, an iconic figure in Japanese industrial design, the butterfly stool is composed of two identical curved pieces of plywood. Some see these as butterfly wings, after which it is named. To others, the shape recalls that of Japanese ideograms.

An aesthetic that evokes Japanese craftsmanship

However, the techniques used to make this stool come from the west. The bending of the plywood, which allows it to be given its curved shape, was developed by Charles and Ray Eames. Sori Yanagi also drew inspiration from western chairs, perhaps due to his contact with Charlotte Perriand, for whom he worked as an assistant during her stay in Japan from 1940 until 1942, because at the time, the Japanese were accustomed to sitting on the floor.

The simplicity of the lines and the organic shape of the stool evoke craftsmanship and appear to echo the work of the designer’s father, Soetsu Yanagi, who launched the Mingei movement that preserved and enhanced handmade everyday objects. The butterfly stool, made in Japan from maple or rosewood by furniture manufacturer Tendo Mokko who specialise in wood, has since acquired the status of a work of art and has become part of the collections in important museum institutions like the MET in New York.

The butterfly stool by Sori Yanagi is now available from Vitra.

© Tendo Mokko

© Tendo Mokko

Sori Yanagi, public domain

POET ROBERT BLY, ANTI-WAR ACTIVIST AND ‘MEN’S MOVEMENT’ LEADER, DIES AT 94

November 22, 2021

EUAN KERR

Robert Bly won a National Book Award in 1968. He is pictured above in 2008.Jim Mone/AP

Poet Robert Bly, a tireless advocate for his art form, who over the course of half a century transformed American poetry and was also central to the controversial men’s movement, died Sunday. He was 94 years old.

Bly’s death was confirmed on Monday by his friend, neighbor and fellow poet, James Lenfestey. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Bly, who lived in Minneapolis, had been out of the public eye for close to a decade before his death. 

Bly argued in his 1990 book, Iron John: A Book About Men, that society causes men to be disconnected from their feelings, and he knew he could rub people the wrong way. “I do remember people wanting to kill me, but that’s not unusual,” he said in 2010.

He was a brash farm boy from southern Minnesota who served in the Navy, then went to Harvard with the likes of poet Donald Hall and author George Plimpton. After graduating in 1950, he tired of East Coast life and moved back West. He got an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then returned to farm life in the town of Madison, Minn.Article continues after sponsor

In 1958, Bly launched a literary magazine called The Fifties with his friend William Duffy. In the first issue, they laid out their credo: “The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned.” The Fiftiesbecame a must-read publication for U.S. poetry.

The Poet Of Minnesota, Vietnam And Mythical Men

Bly said they got submissions from some of the best known poets of the time, but rejected almost all of them. “Bill [Duffy] was a genius at these rejection slips,” he recalled in 1999. “He’d say things like, ‘Dear Mr. Jones, These poems remind me of false teeth. Yours sincerely, William Duffy.’ Or, ‘Dear Mr. Jones, These poems are a little like lettuce that’s been left too long in the refrigerator.’ And then we’d get insulting letters back and we’d print the letters because they had more excitement and energy in them than the poem.”

The magazine did print poems by Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg and James Wright, as well as Bly’s translations of poets largely unknown to U.S. audiences — poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado.

The Fifties also published Bly’s own poems. Daughter Mary Bly remembers her father’s lengthy writing process: “You write a poem; you put it in a trunk; you pull it out a year later; you re-write it intensely for two weeks; you put it back in the trunk; pull it out again. You’re bringing months and years of your life to bear on the one idea that turns into 16 lines.”

Bly won a National Book Award in 1968 and became a very public advocate for poetry. In 2009, Lenfestey organized conference to explore the poet’s influence. He said at the time that Bly “really changed the way poetry is read and heard in America. He would attract huge crowds, in some cases, you know, thousands of people spreading over hillsides in California.”

  • In the mid-’60s, Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and some have speculated his activism was the reason he never became a U.S. poet laureate.

Bly was particularly interested in the deeper meanings of fairy tales and the roots of gender roles in modern society. The two came together in Iron John: A Book About Men, in which the poet used a tale from the Brothers Grimm to argue that society disconnects men from their deep feelings and emotions, and that causes problems for everyone.

“There is a tremendous amount of belittling of men that has been going on for a long time in our culture,” he said in an interview in the mid-1990s.

The book, focused on helping men be more sensitive, spent 62 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and became a focus of the nascent men’s movement. It attracted huge media attention, but also got slammed as being anti-women. Bly and his supporters denied this, and he kept writing into his 80s.

Admirers consider Bly’s later poems among his best. Bly himself cited his 2011 poem “Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat” to describe his feelings about growing older: “Each of us deserves to be forgiven,” he said, “if only for/ Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat/ When so many have gone down in the storm.”

As cantankerous as Bly could be sometimes, his second wife, Ruth, once said whenever he was writing poetry, he always smiled.

A San Juan Tribal Gathering

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Scott, Blake and Lorraine talking about dad

Saturday (11/20/21) a large group of friends from around the region and Bill’s family gathered at the Telluride Transfer Warehouse to reminisce, talk story and give tribute and respect to Bill and honor his family.

Many spoke through tears along with deep laughter as we remembered an institution, an icon, a member of the Tall Timber Society of the San Juans. Bill was a positive life force. What an event, Que no? Margs and beers were consumed along with tamales and burritos, some of Bill favorites. Even the Magpie flew through an open window, perched on the sill and squawked a bit looking at the dining opportunities, just like Bill would and uttered, “There are two kinds of people. The quick and the hungry!”

te amamos y te extrañamos querido amigo

Kindness is the highest form of wisdom.

rŌbert

Bill’s extended family

Bob Newman sharing his big world view on Bill
Jerry Oyama’s words

Don’t need a house if you’ve got one of these

.

Abuelo Norte

has thousands of military surplus “House Coats”

for sale, $39.95.

Box 8000

Haley, Idaho

Big Sky and the Big Sky Ski Patrol, Before and After

By Douglas (Dougal) McCarty

INTRODUCTION

Skiing was common for kids growing up in Bozeman Montana in the 1960s.  I took up the sport when I was in eighth grade, which was an old age for Bozeman skiing families, of which mine was not.  I bought my first set of equipment, lace up boots, wooden skis and a 25-dollar seasons pass at Bridger Bowl for a little over 100 bucks using money I made from my paper route.  I found skiing to have a steep learning curve, but after the first few years I got the hang of it and figured that the best way to support my new habit was to join the National Ski Patrol’s, Junior program.  The Junior Patrol adult advisors were Beep Dixon and Mark Lakey.  Beep became a professional patroller at Bridger Bowl and later transferred to Big Sky’s pro patrol the first year of Big Sky’s operation.

The Bridger Bowl Ski patrol had a wild west personality despite the gentlemanly and competent leadership of Duain Bowles.  Duain, no matter how he might have tried, could not dampen the occasional delinquency of the group.  The last straw came at a season’s end ski patrol party in the Bridger Bowl lodge.  The party was getting wild and the general manager, Emile Cochand, was walking up the stairs to break up the affair at the precise moment when the large size Beep decided to put on his skis and ski down the stairs, where he collided with the smaller size Emile, pasting him against the wall where the stairs made a sharp right-hand turn.  This event was the last straw and Emile fired the entire Bridger ski patrol without negotiation.  The next year was the first year of Big Sky’s ski season and the new ski patrol director, the well-known Montana mountain climbing guru, Jim Kanzler had a good pick of experienced ex Bridger Bowl patrollers to staff Big Sky’s first Professional ski patrol.

These first patrollers included:  Director Kanzler, assistant patrol director Todd Pitcher, Terry Onslow, Beep Dixon, Mike Donovan, Brian Leo, Dave Klatt, James Garrett, Steve Dubay, and Brent (Tony) Perkins as best as I can remember.  I joined the group the second year of Big Sky’s ski operation along with Tom Bowles.  Tom was Duain’s youngest son who had just graduated from high school and was a fellow member of Bridger Bowl’s junior ski patrol and we became roommates in the employee dormitory.   This facility had nothing on a small college dorm room, being just big enough for two beds with a bathroom down the hall.  Father Duain was a renaissance man who had many skills, one of which was designing automated irrigation systems for industrial farming in Eastern Washington.  Thus, when Tom left the nest the first time to join the Big Sky ski patrol, Duain gifted him a 50 lb. sack of beans he obtained from the corporate farm, and Tom’s mother Elie added a crock pot.  Each week we only had to stop by a store to pick up a fresh package ham hocks to load up the crock pot so that we always had a hot meal after a hard day of ski patrol work, usually with a stop at the bar in between.  Luckily, our dorm room had windows that opened to the outside.

SKI PATROL LIFE

To say ski patrolling at Big Sky the first few years was a learn as you go challenge is an understatement.  Based on his mountaineering, skiing, and leadership skills I cannot imagine a better director and leader than Jim Kanzler.  The most obvious problem under Kanzler’s direction was the massive amount of avalanche terrain hanging above the ski runs.  Ski patrollers “taking rides” was not uncommon.  I could not believe it when I was first set out on an avalanche control route on the high traverse above the Lone Peak bowl.  Two or three patrollers would take turns breaking trail from the top of the Triple Chair (now Powder Seeker) out across the bottom of the gullies all the way over to near the top of the gondola, stopping at points of perceived safety with landmarks such as Black Rock to throw hand charges in the direction of travel to bomb one’s way to the end of the cirque.  There were many pockets of wind slabs that had to be crossed below an enormous area with megatons of potentially unstable snow and fragile cornices hanging above your head.  

On one such high-traverse day, three of us started out from the top of the Triple Chair, with Brent Perkins in the middle and I was the last in the line.  Early in the traverse, we were crossing above a snowless low-angled talus cliff when the slope we were on started to move.  The lead patroller, I do not remember who, quickly skied out of the moving slab in the direction he was facing.  At the same time, I did what amounted to a flying kick turn and did the same thing escaping the way I had just come.  Brent was in the middle of the several hundred-foot-wide slab and was swept over the talus cliff.

The other two of us hurried around to the base of the cliff to find Brent sitting on top of a significant pile of debris.  He was as white as a ghost and looked like he had been through a cheese grater.  I will never forget his skis; they were orange colored Atomics one of which was completely delaminated from tip to tail.  We picked up all his pieces and helped the much-shaken Brent down to the patrol room.  

There were frequent rides like this that somehow did not result in disaster.  I remember once getting caught on the steep terrain of the Little Rock Tongue (LRT) after a long hard trail breaking traverse, only to get caught doing a ski check.  As I started to accelerate through sparse timber, I glanced up to see a horizontal tree limb that I was about to go under and shot my arms up just in time catch the limb and barely hang on as the snow continued sliding down around my legs pulling hard on my skis.  I almost lost my grip.  This one could have ended badly had I not been able to hold on to that limb.

STEEP SKIING

Big Sky ski patrol year #2.  James Garrett, Dave Klatt (in front)  hiking up ridge above triple chair to ski south face, perhaps first ski of Marx (photo McCarty).

The Big One.  The conical shape of Lone Mountain, with its steep smooth, treeless slopes, and its solitary position between the Spanish Peaks to the North and the Hilgard’s to the South, beckons to be skied.  This was no different in the early 70s before a tram began to carry many visitors to the summit every year with the same desire.  The symmetrical shape of the Lone Mountain is unique.  The southeast through southwest sides are the smoothest, steep, and open mountain sides from summit to valley and any skier looking at the peak would think or say; I want to ski that!

 Lone Mountain south face, year #2 knee deep powder (photo McCarty).

Early in the winter of Big Sky’s second year, James Garrett, Brian Leo, Dave Klatt and I climbed up to near the summit and looked down the longest unbroken concave slope I had ever seen, which was immediately south of the long east ridge that defined the bowl of the ski area.  The day was windless, cold, and clear.  There was two feet of light powder snow uniformly distributed over the whole mountain.  Somehow the weather history did not produce any avalanche related discontinuities and we all were able to ski the wide-open, knee-deep line from top to bottom until our legs begged us to stop and look back with big smiles at our sets of parallel tracks.  

Before joining the Big Sky ski patrol, James was a government major at Montana State University, and he was fascinated by the philosophy of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.  The names of the two prominent wide concave faces on Lone Mountain’s south side were thus christened L & M after these two guys and the names stuck, surprisingly to this day.  The previous year, Garrett had a significantly different Lone Peak experience and first ski descent. 

While Lone Mountain stands alone like a giant traffic cone when viewed from the east, its symmetry is interrupted by a proportionally smaller ‘scoop’ forming a shaded cirque on the northeast aspect that was created by Pleistocene glaciation.  The cirque is flanked by the dramatic west facing wall on the right-hand side when looking up.  To the left of the West Wall are two spectacular steep couloirs that wind their way down from just below the summit.  The larger of the two, called now The Big Couloir starts close to the summit, it is steep and wide with a couple of dogleg turns before emptying out in the bowl above the Powder Seeker lift.  The Little Couloir starts lower and is bound on the looker’s right side by the abrupt edge of the West Wall.  This feature is shorter but much steeper and less well defined than the Big Couloir neighbor.   

The Big Couloir is the obvious line above the cirque that calls out to be skied.  Access to Lone Mountains operations during the first (and subsequent) years of Big Sky’s existence was controlled by the ski patrol for reasons of safety to the person wanting to climb up and ski down, and to other paying customers, where the possibility of a skier triggered avalanche is a significant risk to those below.

The Big Couloir was on many people’s minds that first season when Kanzler directed James Garrett and Brian Leo to hike up to the summit, carrying hand charge explosives for avalanche control, along with an awkward hand auger to bore holes in the massive snow cornice that bared entry into the couloir.  The plan was to drop hand charges into the boreholes once dug to blast off the cornice before it would grow, weaken, and collapse on its own at an inappropriate time, and thus mitigate the hazard to people below.

The day was crisp cold and clear, and many ski area employees, and customers gathered near the top of the Triple Chair to watch their progress, while management watched through a spotting scope near the base area.  Occasional explosions from hand charges broke the winter silence as the two patrollers worked their way up the ridge and slowly made their way to the summit.  At the top of the couloir Brian Leo, an accomplished climber and frequent climbing partner with Kanzler, put the less experienced (at the time) Garrett on belay with a climbing rope while James walked out on the overhanging cornice with the auger and started drilling the first hole to fill with a hand charge.

James had not yet finished this first hole when many tons of hard wind packed cornice snow collapsed below his feet sending a torrent of blocks the size of refrigerators down the Big Couloir while James, auger in one hand, dangled off the now vertical snow cliff that formed.  The collapse and James’s weight pulled Brian hard into the snow on the backside as he dug in his heals.  Brian gripped tight on the rope which he had only set up as a hip belay.  This incident caused all the spectator’s jaws to drop, including the area manager who was watching James dangle through the spotting scope.  The boss promptly called Brian on his radio to demand to know what the hell was going on up there.  Brian’s reply was equally prompt and to the point; “I’ll have to call you back, I’m kind of busy now”, he said in his radio as he held onto James who was thrashing and kicking at the end of the rope.

James somehow held onto the auger and with Brian’s help pulling and tugging they managed to get everything up off the precipice and onto the backside of the ridge.  The two patrollers put themselves all back together unscrewed the auger and stowed it in a backpack.  After they called on the radio that all was well, Brian said to James that he thought they earned their reward for the day’s work, and they entered the couloir from the side, skied down the beautiful line where they were met with greetings and cheers from the crowd gathered at the Triple Chair.  This was the first documented descent of the Big Couloir.


~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

~~~ SEE ALL THE PHOTOS ~~~

‘HARSH TIMES’ NOVEL EXPLORES CIA-BACKED COUP TO OVERTHROW GUATEMALA’S GOVERNMENT ~ NPR

~~~ LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW ~~~

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

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Under Review

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

Illustration of two figures walking and a man cast in shadow waiting behind a wall with a gun.

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.”

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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.