Politics has always held a foremost place in both the fiction and career of Nobel Laureate and former Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa. His latest novel, Harsh Times, focuses on the turbulent 20th century history of Guatemala, with its US-backed coups and accusations of Soviet infiltration. This covers a broad cast of historical figures, ranging from presidents Jacobo Árbenz and Castillo Armas to the Dominican spymaster Johnny Abbes García. The story is loosely arranged around the fictionalised life of Marta Borrero Parra, teenage mother, then mistress of the President, then propagandist in exile. Vargas Llosa relates a recent encounter with the ‘real’ Marta in the book’s closing chapter, though the question of how far he – and she – can be believed is left open. Vargas Llosa writes with sympathy and interest about all his characters, weaving fact with imaginative speculation. At times the novel reads like an engaging history book; Vargas Llosa invites the reader to wonder whether his account is any less true than those of conventional historians.
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