Death in the Andes
Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman
Paperback: 276 pages
Publisher: Picador; 1st edition (October 2, 2007)
In a remote Andean village, three men have disappeared. Peruvian Army corporal Lituma and his deputy Tomás have been dispatched to investigate, and to guard the town from the Shining Path guerrillas they assume are responsible. But the townspeople do not trust the officers, and they have their own ideas about what forces claimed the bodies of the missing men. To pass the time, and to cope with their homesickness, Tomás entertains Lituma nightly with the sensuous, surreal tale of his precarious love affair with a wayward prostitute. His stories are intermingled with the ongoing mystery of the missing men.
Death in the Andes is an atmospheric suspense story and a political allegory, a panoramic view of contemporary Peru from one of the world's great novelists.
About the author:
Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." Peru's foremost writer, he has been awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and the Jerusalem Prize. His many works include The Feast of the Goat, The Bad Girl, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The War of the End of the World, and The Storyteller. He lives in London.
“Peru's best novelist—one of the world's best.”
―John Updike, The New Yorker
“Well-knit social criticism as trenchant as any by Balzac or Flaubert . . . This is a novel that plumbs the heart of the Americas.”
―The Washington Post Book World
“Remarkable . . . a fantastically picturesque landscape of Indians and llamas, snowy peaks, hunger, and violence.”
―Raymond Sokolov, The Wall Street Journal
“Meticulously realistic descriptions of this high, unforgiving landscape and the haunted people who perch there . . . merge into a surreal portrait of a place both specific and universal.”
This was an excellent story with great characters and captivating narration. Lituma is now stationed in the mountains in Naccos (after being ejected from Piura after Palomino Molera and needs to solve a triple homicide which superficially looks like it may be the work of the Sendero Luminoso terrorists (whom we also get glimpses of during the book through some of their victims). The pace never lets up and we also are treated to local folklore like in The Storyteller which plays an important part in the story as well. I liked the triple narrative framing of each chapter and found each character engaging and realistic. … Mario Vargas Llosa is an extraordinary storyteller and novelist and this was another standout book for me.
After finishing Death in the Andes, it’s easy to see why Llosa is Peru’s most famous novelist, and why he earned the Nobel Prize.
In the beginning, I didn’t like it much. It seemed very dark and overly masculine. A policeman and his assistant are stationed at a remote post in the Andes, charged with rooting out the Shining Path terrorists. The assistant entertains his boss by telling the story of his unrequited and tragic love. Meanwhile, mysterious and sinister forces in the village coalesce and make the corporal almost crazed with curiosity.
Some of the themes, masterfully interwoven into a gripping novel, include
- Practices and tenets of the Shining Path, a Maoist group that wreaked havoc in Peru from the 1980s to the 2000s. I hadn’t known about their senseless brutality, or how they drove people from the highlands int cities, destroying infrastructure as they went.
- How boring and oppressive life in a mining town could be.
- Mixture of ancient spirituality with current life for highland villagers; belief in witchcraft, belief in “apus”, or spirits of the mountains, who must be appeased, etc.
- Tensions between Quechua- and Spanish-speaking people, and distrust between highland and lowand groups
- Widespreadness of corruption (even before druglords became more powerful)
- Harshness of high-altitude climate
- Power of romantic love, despite all odds
- Role of storytelling in maintaining hope and creating bonds between people
As a female reader, I was constantly aware of the lack of women characters with whom I could identify. Also, as a North American, I very much felt like an outsider looking into an alien culture. These aren’t necessarily bad things, just something to note.
It was fascinating to watch the author develop a relationship between the policeman and the local bartender (aptly named Dionisio) and his wife. The latter are at first repulsive, embodying paganism, wild abandon, alcohol abuse, sexuality, and everything the more “civilized” policeman considers abhorrent. His obsession with solving three disappearances, however, leads him to become a more sensitive (and possibly even believing) listener. This plot line was one of the most important for an outsider like me wanting to peek inside Peruvian village life.
Also, without giving anything away, be forewarned that the ending is a punch in the gut that you won’t soon forget.