On Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa

Every now and then, when the density of life – its enormity and its utter atrocious inhuman filth – is just too great a burden for your squeamish little mind to comprehend or deal with, fiction can serve as a midwife to understanding. And perhaps to salvation. As with great literature, it surely is the case with Death in the Andes.

Before Death in the Andes, I have only read Llosa’s The Bad Girl, a work that is more recent. Like The Bad Girl, I find that violence to Llosa is a theme, or topography, well-trod and very much familiar – a frighteningly comfortable subject that he uses to great effect. While not as exhaustive (or “psychoanalytic”) in its examination of evil, violence, and the way a person’s psyche is shaped by its exposure to human depravity and moral corruption as, say, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Notes From Underground, Llosa’s Death in the Andes is an intricately structured and multilayered hither and thither of clamorous voices past and present. It is an atmospheric suspense story, a political allegory, and, perhaps seen from an oblique angle, it can possibly be a love story. Although I found this one to be grim and quite distressing, I can see perfectly how this novel brings to mind a Peru that you wouldn’t find in the glossy pages of a holiday brochure or in the empty platitudes of a Miss Universe candidate. Death in the Andes is a crime / murder whodunit of a novel, alright, but one in which the very history and culture of an entire country is the unlikely killer.

The novel takes place in Naccos, a far-flung, grim locality somewhere in the Peruvian Andes, tucked away from the demands of modern urban life, where a road is being built on the high Peruvian sierra. Peruvian army corporal Lituma and his deputy Tomas Carreno of the Civil Guard are posted in the location to protect the highway construction crew of 200 workers against the Senderistas, guerrilla terrorists of the Shining Path, the infamous Sendero Luminoso. They spend most of their days in idleness, mulling over the misfortune and misery in which they live … until a number of people start to go missing: first, an albino, then a mute, and then the foreman of works. Who, or what, is responsible? Local terrorists, or local pishtacos (demons of some kind) – or something else – something more sinister?

Lituma and Carreno are called in, but being outsiders to the mostly indigenous people of Naccos, nobody is giving them the time of day. Andes is in a state of catastrophe: the area is volatile, hostile, and extremely, violently political. Senderustas are plaguing its hills, murdering anyone not conforming to their way of life. Many of the natives believe that the hills also contain other, unnatural dangers, such as pishtacos, or demons, and the apus, malevolent spirits inhabiting mountain peaks that send down landslides to punish wayward towns. The people of Naccos are at the mercy of these forces: they conspire to cause the disappearance of the three men, or so the protagonists think. Lituma and Carreno must first come to know their native country before they can hope to solve the mysterious crimes. And so they do.

Without warning, and without transition, the narrative abruptly shifts to minor stories in the manner of vignettes, which also evolve and broaden. The narrative becomes dense. One story tells of the brutal attack on a village of Andromarca, and it illustrates how the terroristic Shining Path operates, sheds light on its political aims and agenda – with local leaders captured and killed, young children abducted to join the terrorist militia, public executions, stonings, and the attempt to establish a support base from which the terrorists will spread their “proletarian” dominion. The capture and murder of environmental scientists and foreign volunteers who work with indigenous people in the Andean mountains becomes yet another subplot, while in another, involving ancient ethnic practices, the ancient mythology of human sacrifice to pacify evil spirits becomes real.

It is precisely through these subplots, shifting time frames, and different points of view Llosa masterfully presents many aspects of life – and “death” – in the Andes in the 1980s and early 1990s. In profound ways you become acquainted with Peruvian history and culture as you come across interchanging viewpoints, dialogue filled with sly hints and shadowy insinuations, layered conversations that stir together and punctuate the present and the past, leaving you no choice but to become a sort of detective yourself. It’s composed of stories within stories, alternating between the grim and the comic. In one instance you witness innocent tourists being stoned to death, rather than shot, to save bullets, while others take part in the killing. In another you listen to a lovelorn narrator lament about his improbable love affair with a prostitute and his misadventures with the Senderistas. You witness a village turning upon itself and choosing victims for the terrorists. You meet an old, repulsive woman who in her youth succeeded in killing a pishtaco. You gain a hazy understanding as to why foreigners involved in re-forestation programs become primary targets for assassination.

This pastiche approach, a particular postmodern device and which Llosa uses to great effect, enables him to create a vivid panorama of life during this troubled period. This approach, however, lacks the strong characterizations which create empathy in the reader with the novel’s protagonists. It is impossible to empathize with Lituma, or with any other character for that matter. In its focus on the Shining Path, however, this novel comments on Peru’s not so distant past by providing a rare view of a terror group and its political goals and tactics, offering an important reminder of the need for vigilance.

I already want to re-read this book, and I am already searching for Llosa’s other works. Although I found his portrait of contemporary Peru to be a bit unsettling (the novel’s ending will discomfit me with unpleasant reminders and images for quite some time), Death in the Andes did appeal to me on many levels. More than its political undertones, it is a unique, perceptive insight into the culture and history of a country I know virtually nothing about. It’s colorful, mystical, mysterious, and moving: a memorable lesson in history, in cultural conflict, and in man’s inhumanity. It’s a great read, ideal if you’re keen on expanding your cultural-geographic horizons through fiction.

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