Vargas Llosa Returns to His Peaks

A review of Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa

In Latin America, where Rubén Darío, Gabriela Mistral, Miguel Angel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Alejo Carpentier, and Carlos Fuentes have served as diplomats, and where the poet Ernesto Cardenal was the Nicaraguan Minister of Culture under the Sandinistas, a compelling metaphor is not always the limit of a writer's power. In 1990 Mario Vargas Llosa, the only contemporary Peruvian with an international literary reputation, ran for President of his country. He garnered a plurality of 29 percent in the first round of balloting but lost the runoff to an obscure agronomist named Alberto Fujimori, who received 57 percent of the final vote. In A Fish in the Water, the memoir that Vargas Llosa published in Spanish in 1993, he recalled the arguments with which Paz tried to dissuade him from entering politics: "incompatibility with intellectual work, loss of independence, being manipulated by professional politicians, and, in the long run, frustration and the feeling of years of one's life wasted." Nevertheless "the decadence, the impoverishment, the terrorism, and the multiple crises of Peruvian society," as Vargas Llosa explained it, drew him to the challenge of seeking "the most dangerous job in the world." The author of ten novels, including The Green House (1968), Conversation in The Cathedral (1975), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1982), The War of the End of the World (1984), and In Praise of the Stepmother (1990), by running for President of his poor, embattled nation, pursued the grandiose illusion "of writing the great novel in real life."

Living now in London, Vargas Llosa is again trying to write the great novel through more conventional means. At the age of fifty he outlined a five-year plan for fresh projects that would include "a novel, something between a detective story and a fictional fantasy, about cataclysms, human sacrifices, and political crimes in a village in the Andes." Death in the Andes is that novel. Originally published in 1993 in Barcelona, as Lituma en los Andes , the new book is Vargas Llosa's first work of fiction since his political adventure. It is the work of a man who, even in exile from the nation that repudiated him and in retirement from the public life he grew to despise, is as obsessed with his native land as was James Joyce, who physically abandoned Ireland but wrote about nothing else. "It's a country nobody can understand," says Paul Stormsson, a Danish professor in the new novel, trying to explain his prolonged fascination with Peru. "And for people from clear, transparent countries like mine, nothing is more attractive than an indecipherable mystery."

D begins with a mystery: What happened to three men--a mute, an albino, and a construction foreman--who suddenly vanished from Naccos, a remote mining town in the Peruvian Andes? It concludes with an enigma: How slender is the boundary between civilization and tenebrous horror? The novel's indecipherable mystery is exquisitely attractive to the clear, transparent country that is a genial reader's mind.

The protagonist, Lituma, is a native of Piura, in the northern coastal plain; to him, alpine Naccos is a madhouse where he is the only sane inmate. A corporal in the Civil Guard, posted to Naccos--with only one subordinate--to protect 200 workers who are trying to build a highway, Lituma is determined to solve the disappearances. Were the missing men victims of Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path--guerrillas who are ruthlessly bent on eradicating all traces of urban industrial capitalism? Or has some atavistic savagery surfaced, a reversion to the ritual sacrifices and cannibalism practiced by the region's early Chanca and Huanca cultures? In Lituma, Vargas Llosa (who spent some of his childhood in Piura, which, he recalls fondly in A Fish in the Water, "is more immediately real in what I have written than anywhere else in the world") offers a surrogate for himself and for the civilized reader. Through the exasperated corporal we confront a murky, mountainous universe unamenable to the rule of reason. In founding and leading Libertad, a civic movement designed to cleanse Peruvian politics of its venality and violence, Vargas Llosa presented himself as a champion of enlightenment in a sad, benighted land. He explains in his memoir: "Although I was born in Peru ("through an accident of geography," as the head of the Peruvian Army, General Nicolás de Bari Hermoza, put it, thinking that he was insulting me), my vocation is that of a cosmopolitan and an expatriate who has always detested nationalism, which strikes me as one of the human aberrations that has made the most blood flow."

In Vargas Llosa's account of his campaign for the presidency, the bloody, aberrant forces of fear, resentment, and obscurantism triumphed over urbane reason. Death in the Andes re-enacts that national and personal failure. The decent corporal, who represents authority, is isolated and helpless in Naccos.

The novel offers vivid demonstrations of why Peru, which the nineteenth-century naturalist Antonio Raimondi called "a beggar sitting on a bench made of gold," has become an international symbol of self-destruction. Like the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso--before President Fujimori displayed its legendary leader, Abimael Guzmán, captive in a cage--was world-renowned for savagery in the service of ideological zeal. In Death in the Andes terrorists stone to death two young French tourists who gaze in awe at the Peruvian landscape and whose only crime is ignorance of Spanish. They also execute Hortensia D'Harcourt, an elderly naturalist who naively believes that someone whose life has been spent studying and protecting the country's environmental and cultural resources will be spared by fanatics. "Our concern is nature, the environment, the animals and plants," she informs her accusers. "We don't work for the government; we work for Peru. All of Peru." But, categorizing her as "the intellectual who serves bourgeois power and the ruling class," the terrorists are deaf to her appeals to common ideals or common humanity. When they murder her, they are as impassive as when they slaughter a herd of vicuñas.

However, Death in the Andes offers horrors even more harrowing than Shining Path. The serruchos--mountain people--believe that their rugged terrain is haunted by apus, tutelary spirits of the local summits who must periodically be propitiated with ritual slaughter and cannibalism. Pishtacos, demons who suck the fat out of living human bodies, are said to wander the mountainside. "In civilized places, nobody believes things like that anymore," Lituma says. But the corporal is not in Piura anymore, and many in Naccos believe that the huayco, the Andean avalanche that defeats the efforts to build a highway and nearly kills Lituma, has supernatural origins. Lituma interrogates Dionisio, the proprietor of the town's only cantina and the impresario of nightly Dionysian revelries. But neither he nor his wife, Adriana, a devotee of witchcraft, can satisfy a civilized man seeking a lucid explanation for the mysterious disappearances in Naccos.

Neither can the lonely corporal find sexual satisfaction. Lituma's only companion is his adjutant, Tomás Carreño, a young Civil Guardsman assigned to this forlorn post as penance for a violent infraction. Every night, as they prepare for sleep on their Spartan cots, Tomás recounts an installment of his own love story, and Vargas Llosa's text cuts deftly from the bleak stint in Naccos to a droll romantic fantasy of passion, murder, courage, and devotion. An Andean Scheherazade, Tomás keeps his listener awake long into the night with a tale that arouses Lituma's curiosity and his frustrated lust. Assigned to serve as a bodyguard to a gangster called Hog, Tomás killed Hog after he observed him bedding and beating a pretty prostitute. A twenty-three-year-old virgin, Tomás fell desperately in love with the prostitute, Mercedes Trelles, who was indifferent and even hostile to her presumed benefactor. In fact by murdering Hog, Tomás endangered them both. (The vanity of benefaction is something the lovestruck young bodyguard shares with his quixotic politician-author.) Tomás and Mercedes flee across Peru, and amid a series of outlandish escapades Tomás loses his virginity and $4,000. When, at the end of the novel, the beautiful Mercedes materializes in Naccos, Vargas Llosa confounds two realms, along with the skeptical reader who would not credit the power of love.

IN the Andean fastness of Vargas Llosa's new book passion is as indecipherable a mystery as violence. Both defy and defeat the logical mind. One intoxicating evening Lituma listens to a couple of mining engineers tell chilling stories about the pre-Columbian peoples who inhabited Peru: "Sacrificing children, men, women to the river they were going to divert, the road they were going to open, the temple or fortress they were building--that's not what we call civilized." Corporal Lituma is a civilized man who has strayed into the heart of darkness, and the hypothesis of atavism seems the only rational response to the horror--the horror of humanity. "Two cultures, one Western and modern, the other aboriginal and archaic, badly coexist, separated from each other because of the exploitation and discrimination that the former exercises over the latter," Vargas Llosa wrote about The Green House. But he might just as well have been describing the figure in the carpet of his entire career, including his failed presidential bid.

Lituma meets a mining engineer who wonders "if what's going on in Peru isn't a resurrection of all that buried violence. As if it had been hidden somewhere, and suddenly, for some reason, it all surfaced again." The traumas of a political campaign marked by irrationality, violence, and disappointment surface again in Death in the Andes. A vocal critic of President Fujimori, who subdued the terrorists but also arrogated to himself extra-constitutional powers, Vargas Llosa apparently considers it imprudent to return to Peru. Yet even after spurning him at the polls, Peruvians remain proud of their most famous novelist. A visitor to Lima is often taken to the affluent suburb of Barranco to gaze at the house that Vargas Llosa left behind. In Death in the Andes the author returns to his most successful medium, in an account of cosmic failure that explains why he abandoned politics but cannot leave home.

In a lecture on his own fiction, delivered at Syracuse University in 1988, Vargas Llosa identified The War of the End of the World as his favorite, "because I think it is the most ambitious project I have ever undertaken." At a mere 271 pages, Death in the Andes lacks the heft of that 568-page tome, a complex account of a mid-1890s rebellion in the Bahia region of Brazil. But it is the author's most immediately and thoroughly engaging book since Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. In his five-year plan for literary production Vargas Llosa outlined ideas for other Peruvian fictions: "a play about a little old Quixote-like man who, in the Lima of the 1950s, embarks on a crusade to save the city's colonial-era balconies threatened with demolition" and "a historical novel inspired by Flora Tristan, the Franco-Peruvian revolutionary, ideologist, and feminist, who lived in the first third of the nineteenth century." "I dont hate it! I dont hate it! " Faulkner's Quentin Compson, in remote Massachusetts, insists about his native South. A ghostly exercise in personal exorcism, Death in the Andes enables its exiled author to return to his natural calling and to the native landscapes of a fertile imagination.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1996; Vargas Llosa Returns to His Peaks; Volume 277, No. 3; pages 122-124.