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'Harsh Times' novel explores CIA-backed coup to overthrow Guatemala's government

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA: I write every morning between 6 and 8. And the rest of the day, I read, you know? I read. I take notes. But the best time for writing is the beginning of the day.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mario Vargas Llosa - we caught up with the 2010 Nobel laureate in literature, who was born in Peru, at the end of his day in Madrid, where he lives now. At the age of 85, he has a new novel, "Harsh Times," set in the 1950s. When Jacobo Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala, he began a land reform program to give farm workers lands owned but not used by the mighty United Fruit Company of New Orleans, which had brought bananas to the United States and spread its tentacles so widely it was known in much of Central America as the octopus.

LLOSA: I remember very well. I was in Peru, very far away from Guatemala. And we were following what was happening in Guatemala with great enthusiasm, a democratic regime who was respecting the law and changing the structures of the country, you know, creating a new land for the peasants.

SIMON: But in 1954, the CIA supported a general, Carlos Castillo Armas, who led a coup to overthrow Guatemala's democratically elected government. United Fruit's eminent New York public relations firm promoted a false story that President Arbenz was somehow a supporter of Soviet communism.

LLOSA: That was not exactly the real situation because Arbenz was a great admirer of United States. And he had never thought to bring, you know, the Soviet Union in his country. On the contrary, he was much more in favor of United States. And so he was very confused when he discovered that the United States was supporting Castillo Armas in his coup against him, you know.

SIMON: Mario Vargas Llosa believes U.S. support of that 1954 coup set off a series of unintended consequences just as Fidel Castro was gaining popular support for the revolution he would lead in Cuba.

LLOSA: And suddenly, the way in which America intervened was very disappointed for us. And I think that a new period started in America Latina, in which many, many young people who were very enthusiastic with Arbenz decided because of the failure of Arbenz to support, you know, the rebellion against democracy following the example of Cuba. In this sense, I think the tragedy of Guatemala was a tragedy for Latin America.

SIMON: "Harsh Times" is a novel, of course, but Mario Vargas Llosa creates characters so vivid and compelling, like Martita, the mistress of powerful men who mistakenly believe they can control her, and a mysterious American who shows up at opportune times who may be CIA, may be United Fruit, or may be who knows. You find yourself pausing to look them up on search engines only to discover they're the fruit of the novelist's imagination and his own experience. Mario Vargas Llosa actually ran for president of Peru in 1990 as the candidate of a center-right party.

LLOSA: I was in my in my youth, you know, very leftist. Then I discover, you know, the real thing, the way in which the leftists were supporting the Soviet Union and they supported the dictatorship. So I became very democratic in my candidacy in the year 1990. It was a Democratic candidacy, and I respected the result of the election. And I was very respectful of what was happening in Peru the two years in which Fujimori was a Democratic president. But when he gave a coup, a military coup, and suspended, you know, the Congress, I started to criticize him because I am against any coup d'etat in Latin America, you know? I am against the government of Venezuela, the government of Cuba, the government of Nicaragua. And I am against, you know, what has happened in my own country.

SIMON: Mario Vargas Llosa - his new novel, "Harsh Times." And at the age of 85, he says he's already at work on his next book. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.