This is the kind of novel that mocks the give-it-10-pages, I-need-to-be-grabbed-because-life-is-too-short school of reading. Even those of the trust-the-artist, persevere-and-stand-fast persuasion should prepare to be tested. I confess: I was confused, bewildered, lost. I wrote down the names of the characters. I backtracked. I cross-tracked. I re-tracked. The shape of the narrative only really began to declare itself around page 90. But then … oh, what an engaging education Harsh Times turned out to be, and how I came to look forward to my time in its company.
I should not have doubted a master. Now 85, Mario Vargas Llosa has won numerous literary prizes, from the Nobel down. He ran for president of Peru in 1990 and has a serious claim to be the pre-eminent Latin American writer of his generation. He has written myriad plays, novels, much journalism and nonfiction. In many ways, he is the embodiment of what a great novelist should be: unafraid to write panoptic political novels about the fate of nations and the clash of political ideologies; intellectually capable of encompassing such scope; artistically skilful enough to suffuse it with resonance, torque and drama; and all of this without losing the immersive kinesis of individual stories taken from all points on the compass of the human character.
This is exactly what we have here in Harsh Times. We’re in Guatemala in the 1950s: neck-deep in corruption, the CIA and international conspiracy. Vargas Llosa stays tight to the historical facts but vividly creates the inner lives of his historical and invented characters, allowing the novel to speculate on detail and motive. The story ricochets back and forth in time, but the period that it focuses on is between the 1954 CIA-backed coup in which President Árbenz was overthrown and the 1957 assassination of his successor Carlos Castillo Armas, also as part of an international intrigue.
The traumas begin as the result of a breathtaking historical lie (the first of many contemporary resonances). Edward L Bernays is the director of public relations at United Fruits. The company is making staggering profits selling Guatemalan bananas all over the world, and is financially linked to the Republican US secretary of state, John Dulles, and his brother, Allen, director of the CIA. They “hadn’t invented the banana, of course”, Vargas Llosa notes with the wry humour that suffuses so much of his middle and later work, but they had “never paid a cent in taxes” and treat their workers as little more than slaves. Now there is a threat, though: President Árbenz wants to pass the Agrarian Reform Law in order gradually to change the economic and social lives of millions of people.
Bernays goes on a fact-finding mission and reports back that “the danger that Guatemala should turn communist … is remote”. So, in order to protect United Fruits profits, they need to invent something – a “grave”, “immediate threat”. “What threat? The very same one,” Bernays says, “that I have just told you Guatemala doesn’t represent: the Soviet Trojan horse sneaking through the USA’s back door.” Yep, we’re back to that old-time political favourite: pretend there’s a problem and then offer yourself as the solution so you can grab power.
The beast, once born, duly slouches to Bethlehem and the coup against Árbenz succeeds. How, the president wonders as he surrenders, was it possible that they “could invent something so fantastical as communism in Guatemala? It was a lie through and through, an indecent caricature of reforms, whose entire point was to prevent poverty, injustice and social inequality from pushing Guatemalans towards communism.” Thus Guatemala becomes a “frantic country” gripped by a ruinous and wholly unnecessary antipathy towards something that never threatened, and is soon “racing backwards towards tribalism and absurdity”. Plus ça change.
A substantial part of Vargas Llosa’s gift has always been to illuminate the interior lives of characters regardless of their moral position – something only the greatest writers can do. Everyone in this book is mired in consequential life-and-death decisions. We fear for Marta Borrero, Armas’s lover, when she flees Guatemala in terror in the back of a car driven by the monster, Gacel. We cheer for her when she sinks her teeth into the ear of the degenerate Héctor Trujillo. Somehow, we care about Colonel Enrique, the vile head of Armas’s security, as he crawls back from the rag-and-bone degradation of five years in variously savage prisons infested with “perverts”.
Johnny Abbes García, meanwhile, the Dominican intelligence officer responsible for so much Latin American bloodshed, is rendered masterfully here in fiction with “an extraordinary disjointed gait … as if he were crumbling apart with each step”. Vargas Llosa fans will know him from his appearance in The Feast of the Goat, but we meet him in this book a few hours before his murder of Armas, listlessly toasting Chinese torture methods with rum in a yet-to-open-for-the-day brothel. “You want to know something?” he asks. “Times when I’ve had to make a guy talk, using force, I like to sing. Or recite poetry … I don’t usually go in for that kind of thing. Singing, reciting … Only when I’ve got to hurt someone and make him talk.”
On the second reading, when you know who is who, Harsh Times really comes into its own and, indeed, starts to make artistic sense. The chopping and the changing are designed to make you feel the disorientation, the claustrophobia, the paranoia of the 1950s. Sure, this novel isn’t Vargas Llosa’s finest (although I can’t think of many rival eightysomething authors who could do better). But it is replete with his deep human sensibility; it swarms with life and a determination to tunnel down into the underlying truth of humanity. Power. Politics. Credos and dogma. Senseless, casual death. Hopeless, casual love. The perpetual cruelty that greed recycles. The intergenerational legacy of stupidity. The way humans continually end up running things to their own detriment. Our own detriment.
• Edward Docx’s latest novel, Let Go My Hand, is published by Picador. Harsh Times by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Adrian Nathan West, is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.