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Mario Vargas Llosa and the Age of the Strongman

HARSH TIMES by Mario Vargas Llosa | Translated by Adrian Nathan West

“In Latin America,” wrote the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in 1984, “a writer is not just a writer. Due to the nature of our problems, to a very deep-rooted tradition, to the fact that we have a platform and a way to make ourselves heard, this is, also, someone from whom an active contribution is expected in solving problems.” Elsewhere, he has written that “literature does not describe countries, it invents them,” and as one of the key figures of the Boom, the explosion of Latin American writing onto the world stage during the 1960s, he has helped to shape a sense of identity that transcends national borders. “Among the things I learned” from literature, he explained in a speech in Madrid in 2012, was to “feel Latin American, to discover that, in Peru, I was only a small part of a community that had very large common denominators, not just language, but also history and social, political problems.”

Two interconnected problems have confronted Latin American writers since the end of European colonialism — the often malign influence of the United States and the system of rule by authoritarian strongmen known as caudillismo. “A cross between a superhuman and a jester,” Vargas Llosa explained in an essay on the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, “the caudillo makes and unmakes things at his will, inspired by God or by an ideology in which socialism and fascism — two forms of statism and collectivism — are nearly always confused, and communicates directly with his people through demagoguery, rhetoric and multitudinous, passionate shows of a magical-religious nature.”

In his superb novel “The Feast of the Goat” (2000), Vargas Llosa conjured the inner life of Rafael Trujillo, the psychopathic caudillo who terrorized the Dominican Republic for 30 years until his assassination in 1961. In “Harsh Times,” published in Spanish in 2019 and now ably translated by Adrian Nathan West, he has turned his attention to Guatemala, and the consequences of the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected government in 1954.

Mario Vargas LlosaCredit…Morgana Vargas Llosa

Guatemala is of course one of the so-called banana republics, whose national politics were subjugated for much of the 20th century to the interests of the United Fruit Company. In an introductory chapter, Vargas Llosa sketches the unlikely alliance between Sam Zemurray, United Fruit’s ruthless self-made president, and Edward Bernays, the propagandist often called the “father of public relations,” whom Zemurray hired to improve the image of the company in the United States. Bernays traveled to Guatemala and concluded that the newly elected government of Juan José Arévalo was in no danger of turning communist, but that land reform threatened the company’s bottom line. He put into action a media strategy intended to paint Arévalo, and later his successor, Jacobo Árbenz, as Soviet puppets, and to gather support for regime change.

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