Death in the Andes

Death in the Andes, originally published in 1993, was the first novel Mario Vargas Llosa wrote after his failed attempt at the presidency of Peru in 1990. He described it as “a novel, something between a detective story and a fictional fantasy, about cataclysms, human sacrifices, and political crimes in a village in the Andes.” The novel uses one of the characters, Corporal Lituma, from his 1986 novel Who Killed Palomino Molero?, and is also structured as a murder mystery, using the genre as a method to expose the endemic violence in the country as government forces and Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas fight out a bitter battle for control. Llosa takes this one step further as he exposes the deeper-lying atavistic impulses of the people living there in a Peruvian Heart of Darkness.

Lituma is half of a two man Civil Guard post in Naccos, a village high in the Andes in south-eastern Peru. Originally from the coast, the mountains feel like a different world:

“In the distance, thunder rolled through the mountains with an intermittent rumbling that rose from the bowels of the earth where the serruchos, these damn mountain people, thought that bulls, serpents, condors and spirits lived.”

Here the people speak a different language – Quechua rather than Spanish – and are deeply suspicious of outsiders, as Lituma discovers when he questions them about three men who have gone missing: “heads shaking no, monosyllables, evasive glances, frowns, pursed lips, a presentiment of menace.” The prime suspects are the guerrillas who live in the mountains; as Lituma tells his right-hand man (indeed, his only man) Tomas:

“You and I won’t get out of here alive. They have us surrounded, what’s the point of kidding ourselves.”

Vargas Llosa does not hide the savagery of the guerrillas: we see them murder two French tourists early in the novel by stoning them to death, and massacre the flock of vicunas tended by the mute ‘half-wit’ Pedro:

“They were shooting them, chasing them, killing off the wounded and dying. It seemed to Pedro Tinoco that night would never come. One of them blew up two calves lying quiet next to their mother, sent them flying with a stick of dynamite.”

Later they kill environmentalist Senora D’Harcourt, who is traveling in the mountains to plan reforestation. She refuses a Civil Guard escort, saying, “We’re not political and we have nothing to do with politics.” She cannot understand why the guerrillas intend to kill her, but, as her engineer tells her:

“They hear but they don’t listen, and they don’t want to understand what you say to them… They’re from another planet.”

As a counterpoint to the death and danger of Lituma and Tomas’ life in the mountains, Vargas Llosa introduces a love story as each night, to distract from their loneliness and fear, Tomas tells Lituma about his ‘girl’, Mercedes. This story, too, begins in violence as Tomas kills the gangster he is meant to be protecting for beating Mercedes:

“I couldn’t take it anymore… I couldn’t stand him hitting you and enjoying it like that. He almost killed you.”

Tomas’ innocence provides welcome relief to the darkness of the rest of the novel, and introduces a note of optimism. Mercedes, far from being pleased at being ‘rescued’, is furious at not only losing the money she was expecting to be paid, but now finding herself on the run(“Who told you to butt in? Who made you my bodyguard, who asked you to protect me?”). Tomas’ innocence is emphasised by Lituma’s running commentary as he tells his story presenting his more cynical world view:

“You didn’t pull out your revolver and shoot him because the stuff he was doing made you sick. Admit that you were jealous.”

One of the most successful formal features of the novel is the way Vargas Llosa tells Tomas’ story as a mixture of Tomas’ speech, Lituma’s interjections, and narrative.

As the novel progresses it becomes less certain that the guerrillas are responsible for the missing men, as Lituma suspected from the beginning – “Does Sendero ever disappear people? They just kill them and leave their leaflets behind to let everybody know who did it.” As it becomes clear that something even darker and more disturbing has occurred, Lituma questions whether discovering the truth is more dangerous than turning a blind eye, in terms of both his life and his sanity.

Death in the Andes (translated by Edith Grossman, who has gone on to translate a further six of Vargas Llosa’s novels) is perhaps not among Vargas Llosa’s very best novels (one candidate for that title would be The Feast of the Goat which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2003) but it is certainly at the top of the next tier. It’s a masterclass in conveying all the complexities of its characters and context without ever seeming laboured or labyrinthine. It both succeeds in portraying a particular place and time in Peru’s history, while at the same time exploring the deeper impulses which lie at the heart of how we live our lives. As a contender for the missing IFFP of 1996, it makes a powerful claim.

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9 Responses to “Death in the Andes”

  1. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Faber and Faber) […]

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve not read any of his work, Grant, but I’m not convinced this would be the ideal place for me to start – it does sound very violent…

    • 1streading Says:

      You might like something like Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter better. His political books (which I think are his best) often involve violence, but he also writes more comedic novels.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    An interesting combination of the personal and political. Plus your reference to The Heart of Darkness definitely adds a feeling of intensity.

    As an aside, I wasn’t aware that this author had put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency! You learn something new every day…

  4. Caroline Says:

    I’ve got it on my piles and am tempted to read it soon. I suppose Vargas Llosa, even not at his best is still well worth reading. I like the idea to use the crime genre to talk about violence.

    • 1streading Says:

      Well, it’s maybe not his very best but I would put it in his top ten (and he has written quite a lot!). As a fan of crime fiction, I’m always pleased to see it used in innovative ways!

  5. heavenali Says:

    This does sound interesting, but the violence puts me off I’m afraid.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, there are some particularly gruesome seems – even more upsetting to think they are based on what actually happened. I think theta’s why Vargas Llosa includes the love story as it really is quite touching.

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