Tiempos recios. Mario Vargas Llosa. Barcelona: Alfaguara, 2019.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s new novel Tiempos recios [Fierce times], published by Alfaguara in 2019, tells the story of the 1954 coup that deposed Jacobo Árbenz from the Guatemalan presidency. Like all that he has written, this is a very well-narrated novel, but without the structural complexity that he has deployed in other novels like The Green House (1966) or Conversation in the Cathedral (1969). It is fairly linear, with chapters of various lengths following the story’s narrative thread without digressions or narrative intricacies. In that sense, it is an easy book to read, stylistically and linguistically simple. It is not a novel that shows off grand narrative feats. Instead, it seeks to present political and historical perspective. Tiempos recios works to show how the governments of Juan José Arévalo, and Jacobo Árbenz after him, were not Communist, but truly democratic. How they sought to modernize Guatemala and build up strong, democratic institutions like those in the United States—to raise the quality of life for indigenous Guatemalans, and the vast majority of Guatemalans who owned no land and had no access to education or healthcare. He shows how the United States committed a grave error in supporting the interests of the United Fruit Company and a handful of landlords at the expense of the vast majority of Guatemalans.
The United States and some historians seek to cast the 1954 invasion of Guatemala as one more fight in the context of the Cold War, waged to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold in the Americas. Of course, Mario Vargas Llosa is well known for his conservative views—he would call them liberal—and his opposition to socialism and international Communism. He has criticized Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and the current government of Mexico. In this work, he posits that the United States betrayed its own democratic principles, the very essence of its form of government, when it brought down the government of Jacobo Árbenz. I would go so far as to say that this novel is a thesis with the principle object of laying out a political position, not a true work of art that changes the course of Latin American narrative.
The first chapter is dedicated to the United Fruit Company and its founder, Sam Zemurray, perhaps the most powerful man in Central America during the twentieth century. A very controversial figure, he controlled ports, railroads, enormous banana plantations, and banks. He chose—and removed—politicians and presidents. This section tells of his friendship with Edward L. Bernays, whom he contracted as a publicist to change the image of the United Fruit Company in the United States and the rest of the world. The entire first chapter provides historical information, a sort of introduction with the heading “Before” that opens the door to the rest of the novel. Next come the first chapter where we enter directly into fiction. We read the story of a woman, a female character. We will come to know her as Miss Guatemala; her full name is Martita Borrero Parra. Martita is a little girl at the beginning of the novel, then a young woman, and then a grown woman with plenty of relationships with politicians and powerful men. Finally, she is an elderly woman, ending the novel in the last chapter with an interview with the author, Mario Vargas Llosa. This climax is entitled “After”; thus, the novel begins before and ends after, with 32 chapters in between comprising the story of the United States’ invasion of Guatemala.
On another level, we can say that the novel is about how men abuse a woman. They are generally older men in positions of power, taking advantage of a young girl, then of an unprotected young woman in a risky situation, and finally of a woman that feels endangered and obliged to trust a powerful man. The novel moves within the modern current of the “#MeToo Movement”, denouncing how men abuse their power for sex. We could say that it is a very contemporary novel, and, in that sense, current. Mario Vargas Llosa comments upon one of the most hotly debated and important themes of the moment in which we are living. He oscillates between these two: the nature of the invasion orchestrated by the United States and the CIA against Guatemala, and violence against women. By painting a picture of reality in Guatemala in the mid-twentieth century, he tangentially touches upon the situation in the Dominican Republic and that of its dictator, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, a reality that he knows very well and that he masterfully presented in his novel The Feast of the Goat (2000). In this manner, Vargas Llosa reveals the situation in Guatemala in 1954: a struggle for power between the government of the October Revolution, the laws that Jacobo Árbenz was trying to pass, and the liberating army of Carlos Castillo Armas, who launches his campaign to depose Árbenz from Honduras with the support of the United States. In turn, he imprisons hundreds, tortures them, kills them, and forces many to seek political asylum in embassies. Castillo Armas undoes many of the Jacobo Árbenz’s government’s achievements, returning the United Fruit Company to its privileged perch and establishing anew a classist, racist, reactionary regime in Guatemala.
The novel’s third theme is strongmen, the psychology of power, and the personality of a dictator like Rafael Leónidas Trujillo or Carlos Castillo Armas. The author seems to be interested in exploring the unique sort of admiration these characters inspire, how the people who work for them relate to one another, and the varying sorts of dependence that exist between iron-fisted dictators like Trujillo and men who rise to power with the help of the United States. Men like Castillo Armas, who has neither the charm nor the strength nor the ability to instill respect like the Dominican dictator. Simultaneously, we have a character like Abbes García, who goes from being a small and insignificant horse race reporter to strategizing Trujillo’s national security, specializing in all classes of torture and building up a system of terror that would allow Trujillo to keep total control over the Dominican Republic, all while maintaining an enormous influence in the Caribbean and Central America. He is a character who, even after he flees in the aftermath of Trujillo’s death, feels happy about having served such a man, even though his hands are awash with blood. This novel is apropos, touching the same tribulations that afflict Latin America in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
University of Cincinnati
Translated by Michael Redzich
Nicasio Urbina received his Ph.D. from Georgetown University. He works on literary criticism of contemporary Spanish American literature, with emphasis in Central American literature and culture. He has particular interest in genre theory, semiotics, and narratology. He has taught seminars on the Latin American novel, the short story, Central American literature, creative writing, as well as thematic courses such as humor, myth, and violence in Spanish American literature. He has published eight books of literary criticism, short stories, and poetry, and has edited eight books on different topics. Has published 91 articles of literary criticism, and 122 conferences and papers. In 2015 he received the Rieveschl Award for Creative and Scholarly Work.
Michael Redzich is currently studying law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He gratuated from the University of Oklahoma in 2017 with a BA in Spanish and a BA in Letters. His interest in Latin American literature sprouted early in his Spanish education, but grew considerably during his time in Buenos Aires, where he lived from 2014-2016. Michael was one of the first OU undergraduate students to become involved with LALT, and he continues to work with the journal as a translator and editor at large.