Death in the Andes
Like Mario Vargas Llosa’s earlier novels, La casa verde (1966; The Green House, 1968) and Conversación en la Catedral, (1969; Conversation in the Cathedral, 1975), Death in the Andes is an ambitious novel about Peru in the last part of the twentieth century. The central question in Death in the Andes, to which there are no simple answers, is the following: What is it about Peru and about Peruvian culture and beliefs that has allowed the phenomenon of Shining Path guerrillas to represent part of its national identity? The basic structure of the novel is that of a conversation between two men—Lituma and his young aide, Tomás Carreño—who have been posted to the remote Andean town of Naccos to investigate three disappearances thought to be evidence of Shining Path action in the area. The two Civil Guardsmen hate being in this baffling, dangerous place but do their job conscientiously. To stay sane, they talk to each other. These two primary voices are dramatically different from each other: Lituma’s serious pursuit of the horrifying truths about violence and death in the Andes is contrasted throughout the novel with young Tomasito Carreño’s romantic love story. In the end, Lituma deciphers the truth and Carreño gets his girl. Yet Lituma’s detective work uncovers the ever shadier and murkier underside of human nature, whereas Carreño manages to ignore or brush aside any complexities that might mar his sunny world of idealized romance. Carreño totally refuses to consider that his beloved Mercedes might be less than perfect: He is a committed knight errant who dedicates himself fully to the adoration of his love object. Everyone around him thinks he is crazy, but in the end, his love prevails. Carreño’s tenacity, refusal to entertain doubt, and total obsession pay off: His beloved seeks him out even in remote Naccos. He has insisted upon believing in a fiction, and the fiction becomes reality (within the fiction of the novel).
Lituma, who has appeared in many of Vargas Llosa’s earlier novels, is a listener, an observer, a good-hearted but not a clever man. He is accustomed to obeying rather than formulating orders. Yet in this novel, stranded in a mountain village in a declared emergency zone, with a love-struck boy as his only fellow Guardsman, Lituma is forced into an unaccustomed and unwelcome leadership role, and he spends his time looking for someone who can tell him what to do or at least explain the situation to him.
As in Vargas Llosa’s Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (1986; Who Killed Palomino Molero?, 1987) which also pairs a police inquiry into a mysterious death with a soap-opera-like love interest, one effect of the dual story line is to emphasize the enigmatic and perhaps ambiguous nature of issues of truth and justice, and the obsessional, single- mindedness of sexual passion: Truth is complex and love is simplistic. As in Palomino Molero, the detective story is an inquiry into the state of the Peruvian nation while the romance focuses upon individual fantasy and obsession. Those who seek justice must try to understand its complex national scenario, whereas love is blind and self-absorbed. Lituma struggles with the effort to understand ideas which are alien to him and to adjust his definitions of reality if need be, but Carreño’s love is fueled by his desire to make reality conform to his idealistic (however silly and romantic) vision.
While Lituma’s and Carreño’s stories provide comprehensible, familiar continuity, four other narratives compete vigorously for the reader’s attention from the outset. These are related to the Shining Path guerrilla movement, pre-Greek Dionysiac beliefs, pre-Columbian Andean rituals, and Catholic convictions.
Like all of Vargas Llosa’s novels, Death in the Andes is carefully crafted. Part 1 is composed of five chapters which recount five instances of Shining Path incidents, sandwiched between segments of the ongoing Lituma/Carreño plot. Thus the five shocking Shining Path accounts are cushioned between chapter beginnings and endings in which a stable, reassuring, chronological continuity engages our interest. The five Shining Path incidents embedded among segments of Tomás and Lituma’s ongoing conversation are: the deaths by stoning of two French travelers and others traveling on a bus near Andahuaylas; the slaughter of a herd of vicuñas tended by Pedro Tinoco in Pampa Galeras, near Auquipata; killings and beatings in the town of Andamarca, from which the town lieutenant- governor, Medardo Llantac, escapes by chance; the deaths of idealistic reformers, Hortensia d’Harcourt and others, organizing a reforestation project near Huayllarajcra; and the apparent execution of Casimiro Huarcaya by a Shining Path leader in Accra, south of Ayacucho. The protagonists of three of these incidents (the second, third, and fifth) survive to become the three missing people whose disappearance the two Guardsmen have come to Naccos to investigate, although this information is withheld until the end of the book.
All five of these are stories of Shining Path “justice,” and in each case, the Shining Path rationale is presented clearly and explicitly, although unsympathetically. Each incident portrays the victimization of the innocent by the brutal—and often barely comprehensible—force unleashed, provoked, or inflicted by Shining Path groups which manipulate the fear, poverty, ignorance, and superstition of Andean villagers. The distinction between victims and victimizers seems reasonably straightforward in part 1, but Lituma makes no progress in his investigation of the missing-person cases in the area under his jurisdiction.
The four chapters of part 2 feature accounts of supernatural and superstitious beliefs. Lituma’s pursuit of truth leads him in each chapter to a new episode in which rational explanation is insufficient. Dionysiac excess, beliefs in Andean spirits (nacaqs, apus, mukis, pishtacos), and superstitions about outsiders complicate Lituma’s desire for a simple solution. The chapters of part 2, like those of part 1, also sandwich accounts of unfolding horrors between two Lituma segments. The continuing saga of Tomás’ love story is spaced at wider intervals, at the end of each chapter. This contrast with part 1 increases the...
(The entire section is 2611 words.)