Ideally, a biography should illuminate its subject and the society in which he or she lives. There are two major biographies of Jorge Ubico, Guatemala’s dictator from 1931 to 1944. One, by Joseph Pitti, ends with Ubico’s inauguration in 1931 (“Jorge Ubico and Guatemalan Politics in the 1920s,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, 1975). It is magisterial; it illuminates 20 years of Guatemalan history. The second, by Kenneth Grieb (Guatemalan Caudillo: The Regime of Jorge Ubico, 1979), covers the Ubico era. It is a thoroughly competent book, though not as impressive as Pitti’s volume in either its description or its interpretation of Guatemalan society. There is, therefore, room for a new biography.
In this massive and lavishly illustrated new study of Ubico, Stefan Karlen states that he intends to improve on Pitti and Grieb. He fails. He offers far more details than Grieb—a veritable avalanche of details—and he delivers them all, relentlessly. He adds many more trees, but the sky is lost. If he believes in the old adage that scholarship must be boring, then he has succeeded. This is a very boring book.
Karlen uses no new sources. He relies on U.S. archives and, to a lesser extent, the Guatemalan press. He barely touches the Guatemalan archives, a failing that he justifies by pointing to their poorly organized state. I can sympathize, but only to a limited extent, because even my passing acquaintance with those archives for the Ubico years has shown me that it is possible to get new material from them. Karlen is right: there is room for a new biography of Ubico. But this is not it.