Terror in the Mountains

Death in the Andes

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 276 pp., $24.00

There is a kind of detective fiction, most brilliantly and hauntingly practiced by the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, in which the solution of the mystery is only the start of things. What matters is not so much the crime as the danger of knowing anything about it. The detective patiently puts the pieces together, for example, and discovers exactly why the apparent accident was not an accident—only to learn that everyone else in the town has always known this. He then gets killed, the victim of what used to be his ignorance: he learns too late and too publicly what he should have known he didn’t want to know.

Something similar keeps happening in the recent work of Mario Vargas Llosa, although the detective survives to be baffled again. At the end of Who Killed Palomino Molero? (1986), the mystery seems to have been cleared up. The likable guitar-playing young man was killed on the orders of the Peruvian Air Force colonel, because the young man had run off with the colonel’s daughter. There are a few more complications—tales of incest and madness—and the colonel finally kills his daughter and himself. All the local rumors—that the crimes concerned drugs or smuggling or espionage or frontier quarrels with Ecuador, that what we see is mere appearance, every important move being controlled behind the scenes by the big fish, the large interests—are wrong.

Or are they? The two members of the Civil Guard who solve the mystery are rewarded for their pains by separate transfers to regions miles away from these events. Who ordered these transfers? We know the answer to the question posed by Vargas Llosa’s title, but only in the most literal, immediate sense, and we no longer know what the killing of Palomino Molero means. “The truths that seem truest,” the Civil Guard lieutenant explains to his subordinate, Lituma, “if you keep thinking about them, if you look at them closely, are only half-truths or are no longer truths at all.”

Death in the Andes, published in Spanish in 1993, picks up Lituma, now a corporal, in the place of his transfer, a high Andean community riddled with drink, fear, magic, loneliness. People keep disappearing. Have they been whisked off by the spirits? By terrorists? Have they been sacrificed to the spirits by the locals? Why does everyone seem to know too much about this? What guilty secret binds everyone together? Everyone except Lituma and his assistant, that is. Even an avalanche begins to look like a plot.

Lituma was at home, or near home, in the earlier novel. He comes from Piura, in northern Peru. He was working in Talara, a Pacific fishing community, all sand, heat, stone, scraggly trees, and oil refineries. He sweated a lot, but he was used to sweating. In both books he is your ordinary, patient fellow; stolid but far from stupid; decent but not prudish; often bewildered but not easily deceived; our delegate in …

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