When you read a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, you never know if you’re reading fiction, non-fiction, or a combination of the two. When I first started reading his most recent novel, Harsh Times (English edition, 2021), I thought someone had made a mistake and Vargas Llosa had written of mid-20th century Guatemala.
I first discovered Vargas Llosa in the 1980s, when I took a class in “The Latin American Novel.” He was part of what had become known as the “Latin American Boom,” a veritable explosion of literature that included the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (like 100 Years of Solitude), the wonderful novels of Carlos Fuentes (The Death of Artemio Cruz), the poetry and fiction of Octavio Paz, and writers like Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spider Woman).
For my class, we read Vargas Llosa’s The Green House (1968). On a business trip, I found and began reading The War of the End of the World (1984). For my major paper, I read, analyzed, and reconstructed Conversation in the Cathedral(1975), a huge novel without an immediate discernible narrative structure (it’s there, but you have to do some heavy lifting to find it). After that, reading the funny Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1982) punched home for me his broad reach of topic, history, and popular culture. And I’ve now read most of his works.
|Mario Vargas Llosa|
For Harsh Times, Vargas Llosa tells the story of the before, during, and after of two government overthrows in Guatemala in the 1950s. The first was 1954, the overthrow of the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz that was orchestrated, planned, and financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (an event involving mercenaries, John Foster Dulles of the State Department, and his brother Allen Dulles, director of the CIA; the U.S. could often be its own worst enemy). The second event was the 1957 assassination of Arbenz’s successor, the military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.
Vargas Llosa moves back and forth between the two stories, tying them together with real major characters and (possibly fictional) minor characters. He keeps you guessing as to what is real and what is invented. The overall story is underpinned by extensive historical research. The author doesn’t do anything by halves.
If there is one character who seems to move almost interchangeably through the narrative, it is Marta Borrero Parra, called “Miss Guatemala” by everyone from her father to her numerous lovers. For a time, she was the mistress of the dictator assassinated in 1957 and was said to be involved in the killing. Or it may have been that she was implicated to direct attention away from the real killers. We follow her from her life in Guatemala, her fleeing to the Dominican Republic, her work as a political journalist, and her likely involvement as an agent for the CIA, which spirited her out of the Dominican Republic when strongman Rafael Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. An ardent anti-communist, Trujillo was famous for his brutal regime; one of his main henchmen is a significant character in Harsh Times.
By the end of the book, the reader is prepared for the epilogue – an interview between the author and Miss Guatemala, now in her 80s and living outside Washington, D.C., not far from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. I assume the interview really happened, but Vargas Llosa is so good at imagining what historical people said and thought that the interview could easily be entirely invented. But it’s a feature that makes Harsh Times an impressive feat – and perhaps sleight of hand.
Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.
The past is never past.
I grew up in 100 years of solitude.