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 novel, Nobel Prize in Literature winner 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.
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 ... a book with few heroes and many villains, pulled on by a pervasive undercurrent of despair ... 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.
As he tells the story, Vargas Llosa puts himself, and us, inside the minds of most of these characters, as Shakespeare does with the mind of Macbeth ... I have only sketched this dense though not overlong book, peopled with many other characters whose tangled actions and motivations are reported in detail. After 300-odd pages with this dismal crew, you might crave a shower ... [Vargas Llosa's] characterizations of great and petty monsters in Harsh Times leaves no doubt of his clear eye for the sinister temptations of power, whether of left or right. He is now a citizen of Spain who has taught at Harvard and spends time in London and Peru. Above and beyond his political outlook, Harsh Times proves that he remains at heart a master storyteller.
This is a political novel, also, I suppose, now a historical one ... This richly peopled novel is also a violent political thriller. It is full of action and is, for two reasons, demanding for the reader. First, Vargas Llosa sometimes describes the same incident twice, the second time from a different point of view, when we already know what has happened. This can be confusing. Second, there is a huge number of characters, and I would have found it easier to remember who is who if the publishers had supplied a cast list. Scrupulous readers might be advised to do this for themselves ... Setting such reservations aside, this is a splendidly rich and absorbing novel. It tells remarkable stories and it is, unlike much that may be classed as historical fiction, politically serious. There are sharp portraits, not least of an American ambassador who peddled unreality with missionary zeal. As in the work of some of the author’s masters – notably Conrad and Thomas Mann – the horrors described are relieved, and their reading made tolerable, by a tone of voice rich in irony.