After a very very long time, Mario Vargas Llosa has written a novel that reminds us what a great writer he once was.
“Harsh Times” plays with time, simultaneous and disjointed at once through a collage of episodic narratives to recall the coup that overthrew the Guatemalan October Revolution in 1954. Both in form and content, Llosa makes a comeback with this novel that intersperses factual history and imaginative fiction to expose the role of the CIA and the United States in destabilizing democratically elected governments and in propping up dictators to serve the cause of US corporations in Latin America (The United Fruit Company in this case). The last La Dictadura novel that Llosa wrote was The Feast of the Goat (2000) and there are some characters from that work that show up in this novel too, most prominently Rafael Leónidas Trujillo and his henchman Johny Abbes García.
A lot has changed in Latin America over the last couple of decades- the long reigning dictators are gone, army coups have become a rarity, as democratic processes seem to been stabilizing though “democratic coups” are not unknown and even less the threat of US sanctions and embargoes. Even as I was reading the novel, Gabriel Boric, the new centre Left president in Chile prepares to upturn the half a century long legacy of US dictated neo- liberalism in Chile, the currency has plummeted and the fears of US economic threats have gripped the air. The saga between Latin America and the United States and its local supporters continues to be as sharp as it was. The multiplicity of voices in the novel captures the complexity of the ground reality very well as does the frequent dives into historical facts.
Even more significant than the interplay of facts and imagination, of truths and lies are the novel’s prologue and the afterword.The prologue in particular addresses the power of propaganda that in 1954, for example, the US was able to create around the purported threat of the Soviet Union in Guatemala, even though President Arbenz was not just opposed to the communists but wanted to replicate the US model where land could be distributed to generate demand and corporations like the United Fruit Company could be taxed to benefit the country. The power of propaganda has only increased exponentially since then and boosted the revived of far right and extreme regimes all over the world.
The afterword is interesting too, as Llosa recounts his actual meeting with a central character in the novel “Miss Guatemala” and where her recollections mingle and collide with the novel’s narrative.
The novel is not without it’s faults- some of the lengthy digressions into historical details are unnecessary and slow down the pace of the story in its first half. As a layman, one wonders too if Llosa’s reading of the Guatemalan history of that era is accurate- his political stances are not exactly non- controversial and one fears if they colour his reading of the events. One cannot but notice that Arbenz ‘s politics resembles that of Llosa’s current advocacy of American style capitalism.
In the epilogue Llosa has added his own political conjectures on the wider impact and fallout of the coup elsewhere in Latin America. One does not have to agree with those views to enjoy this novel. Even if in a much paler reflection, this novel shows us elements of the Llosa of his younger days as a novelist par excellence and a campaigner for social justice.