(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Death in the Andes is divided into two parts, of five and four chapters respectively, and an epilogue. Each chapter is further divided into three sections that narrate different parts of the story. The novel is based in part on observations Vargas Llosa made while serving as leader of a 1983 Peruvian government commission investigating the massacre of eight journalists in a remote Andean mountain village.

Vargas Llosa is represented by the fictional character of Corporal Lituma, a native of Piura, a major city in the northwestern coastal valley of Peru. He is sent by army officials to Naccos, a village high in the Andean mountains of southeastern Peru. Since most of the Indian population of the area speaks only Quechua and not Spanish, he must rely on his deputy Tomás Carreño, a native of the region, to interpret for him as he investigates the disappearance of three men.

The communities surrounding Naccos have been the sites of continuous terrorist activities by the Sendero Luminoso, or “Shining Path,” the Communist Party of Peru. To illustrate the brutality and dogmatic mindlessness of the Senderos, there are several independent accounts in which the author tells how, for example, a young French tourist couple and a team of humanitarian ecologists are mercilessly stoned to death for no reason other than that they are outsiders. Since the three men who have disappeared could also be considered outsiders—one is a mute who works for Lituma, the other is an albino in an area where everyone has black hair and dark, weathered skin, and the third is an outsider foreman on the road construction crew—it is quite logical to conclude that these are further acts of terrorism committed by the Senderos.

As members of the army’s Civil Guard, Lituma and his deputy are in Naccos to determine who is responsible for the disappearances and to protect the few remaining members of the construction crew, an assignment that causes them great nervousness and concern for their own safety. To allay their fears and to cope with Lituma’s homesickness, the author has introduced another story totally distinct from the main plot. Each evening, Tomás entertains Lituma with the lusty tales of his love affair with Mercedes, a wayward prostitute from Piura. Although there is virtually no connection between these stories and the everyday reality of the investigation in Naccos, they illustrate that life among the Andean Indians, the real descendants of the Inca Empire, is experienced on a very different plane.

In former times, the village of Naccos was a successful mining town where many of the native...

(The entire section is 1077 words.)