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Harsh Times

Since poco.lit. is an English and German language platform, we rarely review books from other language zones. As such, it’s something of an exception that Peruvian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, should appear here. His latest novel Harsh Times sheds light on colonial power relations that are not based on the official colonial structures. The novel shows how a powerful nation can destabilise a less powerful one with the help of money and propaganda; how a powerful nation can impose its own interests elsewhere, regardless of the costs; how a powerful nation can thus destroy a young democracy-in-the-making. The novel is about the USA and Guatemala.

Mario Vargas Llosa evidently put a lot of research into this book. Numerous historical figures appear in fictionalised form, in order to give visibility to the side that advocates for free democracy. The setting is political Guatemala. When the second democratically elected president Jacobo Àrbenz comes to power in 1951, he wants to require foreign companies to pay taxes in Guatemala, and allow Guatemalan peasants working for those same foreign companies to form trade unions. These changes would come at an undesirably high cost to the US-American banana company United Fruit Company. Its director teams up with a media entrepreneur and launches a propaganda campaign against Àrbenz, accusing him of being a socialist and in cahoots with Russia. The campaign is so successful that even the CIA begins to see a threat in Guatemala. Disaffected Guatemalan military leaders, including Carlos Castillo Armas, also turn against their own government. They hope to gain their own advantages, and more powerful positions, by way of the USA’s interventions. Apart from Àrbenz, no one seems to be interested in the actual needs of the majority of the Guatemalan population.

These power games amongst men, which did exist, but which could certainly also be portrayed quite differently, are complemented by another narrative thread: it follows Miss Guatemala. She has few rights in this Catholic country. After a friend of her father’s seduces the naive young girl, she is forced into marrying him. To escape her misfortune, she attaches herself to powerful men, saying what they want to hear even if it means betrayal.

Overall, Harsh Times almost reads less like a novel, and more like a non-fiction book on the history of Guatemala, for which the USA’s interventions were fateful. For me, the passages in which characters are brought to life, in which their inner lives and conversations are depicted, are the most beautiful. There could have been more of that. Nevertheless, the story itself absolutely captivated and infuriated me. The book describes a scenario that has been repeated many times in the world in one variation or another: Powerful people exploit power structures for their own benefit, commit crimes and are not held accountable for their actions and the fatal consequences of those actions.

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