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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 the territories of mystery. He is a witness to love stories, but not a participant in them. None of that madness for him: he wonders if he is missing something. In the new novel—its Spanish title is Lituma en los Andes—he is a long way from home in every sense: in a cold, Quechua-speaking mountain village southeast of Lima. There are mines, scarcely working now; a road is being built, although the work is repeatedly interrupted; there is a tavern, run by the drunken, bisexual Dionisio and his witchy wife, Adriana. As Borges might say, Dionisio’s name is not innocent of symbolism—the fact that we are in the Andes does not mean we can’t also be in The Bacchae—and Adriana has all kinds of stories to tell about giants and demons. There are the disappearances, which Lituma doggedly tries to investigate. And there is the former love life of Tomás, Lituma’s assistant, recounted through the lonely nights, spaced through the narrative like chapters in a serial: Tomás kills the mobster; Tomás runs off with the mobster’s girlfriend; Tomás pays his respects to his godfather, another mobster; the girlfriend takes off with Tomás’s money; Tomás gets posted to this desolate spot.

There are grim incidents, too: not mysteries, but invasions of what Vargas Llosa sees as the calculated obtuseness and cruelty of Shining Path terrorists. Two French tourists are taken off a bus and stoned to death. Two Peruvian environmentalists who have spent their lives working for their country are executed in the same manner. These events are unrelated to what is happening in Lituma’s community, but not of course to the fear that runs rife there; and not to the novel’s larger theme of atavism and human sacrifice. The terrorists also have gods to appease, and they appease them in the traditional way. They get the local villagers to do their killing for them, which binds them to the revolution, and seems to satisfy angry old appetites.

Le Pérou!” the young Frenchman thinks before the attack on the bus. “There it was: immense, gray-green, poverty-stricken, wealthy, ancient, hermetic.” A Danish anthropologist remembers reading Prescott on the Conquest of Peru: “From that time on, he was filled with curiosity about the people and events, the story of this country.” He laughs when he says Peru is “a country nobody can understand,” and he is mocking himself when he says, “for people from clear, transparent countries like mine, nothing is more attractive than an indecipherable mystery.” But Vargas Llosa’s irony is complicated here, a form of double bluff. The foreigners love the mystery of Peru, but their only mistake is the innocence, or the detachment, of their affection. They are not wrong about the mystery, and Lituma’s transfer from the coast to the mountains places him literally in the ancient, hermetic world of living myth.

Again he felt the oppressive, crushing presence of the immense mountains, the deep sky of the sierra. Everything here moved upward.

Back home in the north, in Piura and Talara, Lituma had never believed in witches or magic, but here in the sierra he was not so sure.

The corporal felt another attack of nostalgia for distant Piura, for its hot weather, its outgoing people who could never keep a secret….

His present posting is all secrets, endlessly hinted at, casually, belatedly revealed. Why did no one tell him that one of the people who had disappeared had earlier escaped from a terrorist massacre? Because he didn’t ask. And also because they thought he knew, too. Is this true, or are they baiting him, playing with his ignorance?

Lituma’s native town; like the anthropologist’s Denmark, takes on all the simplicity that is missing from the Andean scene. But of course the sense of having entered the territory of myth may itself be mythical. Lituma mutters to himself about the “serruchos,” imaginatively glossed by the translator as “these damn mountain people,” and, Tomás, his assistant, asks him why he hates the serruchos so much. Lituma doesn’t answer the question, except to say that Tomás is a serrucho and he doesn’t hate him. This allows Tomás to make a point that is very important for our reading of the novel. “You shouldn’t think that people… are unfriendly because you’re from the coast. It’s because you’re a cop. They’re cold to me, too, and I’m from Cuzco. They don’t like anybody in uniform.” What’s unmistakable in the situation is the silence and secrecy of the locals, but the reasons may be contemporary and practical rather than ancient and anthropological.

Vargas Llosa is offering us here, as in several of his earlier novels, a metaphor for a perceived condition of Peru, backed up by multiple explanations of that condition, most of them plausible, none of them determining. Described as screwed-up in Conversation in the Cathedral, for example, Peru is here given over to unintelligible craziness and primitivism. There are choices of craziness, perhaps, varieties of harm; but sanity doesn’t seem to be an option:

Everybody’s crazy here. Aren’t the terrucos [the terrorists] crazy? Aren’t Dionisio and the witch out of their minds? Wasn’t that Lieutenant Pancorvo stark raving mad when he burned a mute to make him talk? Is there anything more insane than these serruchos scared to death of…throatslitters?

Lituma himself is not crazy, and at the end of the book he is made a sergeant and transferred to the jungle, which is the setting of other Vargas Llosa novels, like Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. No doubt he’ll meet other mysteries there. But his questions animate the metaphor for us. What is happening to Peru? Is contemporary terrorism a reversion to ancient ritual? Or does this very idea only mystify terrorism? Do fear and loneliness always undo the supposed work of civilization in the end, or only at certain times, in certain places? Doña Adriana, accused by Lituma of having a part in the disappearances, says, “I don’t put ideas into anybody’s head…. I take out the ideas they already have inside and make people look at them.” But then how do the ideas get there? Adriana tells a story of Dionysian sacrifice, fueled by a need to balance joy and suffering, life and death, to make a pact with danger.

In the old days people had the courage to face great troubles by making sacrifices”—the last words taking on a weird and troubling literality, far from their current faded implications of cutting costs.

What did they do to keep death from defeating life?… Women took on the responsibility. Women, that’s right. And they did what they had to do. But the man the people chose in council to be lord of the fiestas for the coming year, that man trembled. He knew he would be a leader and authority only until then; after that, the sacrifice. He didn’t run, he didn’t try to escape after he presided over the fiesta, after the procession, the dances, the feasting and the drinking. No, none of that. He stayed to the end, willing and proud to do good for his people. He died a hero, loved and revered…. Only the women went out to hunt him down on the last night of the fiesta. They were drunk, too, wild like the wild girls in Dionisio’s troupe, just like them.

Dionisio’s troupe in the novel is the group of followers who went with him everywhere, as he set up fiestas and taught people to drink, to visit their animal, as he put it, and to lose themselves in trance and orgy. But the wild girls are also maenads, American cousins of the women-worshipers of Dionysus who, in myth and in Euripides, tore Pentheus apart because he was spying on them. The “old days” are all kinds of old days.

Does this story help Lituma, or anyone trying to puzzle out contemporary Peru? It allows us to see he a world of orchestrated, god-driven violence and stark contrast might look like an antidote to a present life which offers nothing but flattened bewilderment, and violence without aim or meaning. A magical explanation is better than no explanation—or so one might come to feel. The trouble is that this view makes you an accomplice of the craziness you are trying to understand, and we need Lituma’s stolidity to protect us from entire capitulation. There is, Vargas Llosa suggests, another kind of orgy, too, one that is not only violent and lethal, but shameful. When they arrive in the town of Andamarca, the terrorists set up a tribunal, consisting of virtually all the inhabitants, to judge the local government employees.

They took turns and patiently explained the crimes, real and inferred, that these servants of a government drenched in blood, these accomplices of repression and torture, had committed against each and every one of them, and their children and their children’s children. They instructed them, they encouraged them to take part, to speak without fear of reprisal, for the armed power of the people protected them.

Little by little, breaking out of their timidity and confusion, spurred on by their own fear, by the atmosphere of exaltation, and by darker motivations—old quarrels, buried resentments, silent envy, family halted—the townspeople began to speak…. They grew impassioned as they made their statements; their voices trembled when they recalled the sons and daughters they had lost, the animals killed by drought and disease, and how every day brought fewer buyers, more hunger, more sickness, more children in the cemetery.

The convicted persons are forced to kneel and place their heads on the wall of the well. Their neighbors then file past, smashing the victims with stones. The terrorists “did not take part in the executions. No gun fired. No knife stabbed. No machete hacked. Only hands, stones, and sticks were used….” And of course there is no magic here, no Dionysian revel. Only the conditions for the flourishing of magic, a scene where the appearance of Dionysus, however dire the consequences, might be perceived as a relief.

Death in the Andes has an epilogue which contains a couple of surprises. I won’t spoil the pleasure of them by revealing them here, but I should say they are not all that surprising, and that I think the epilogue weakens the novel. The book is lucidly written throughout, only occasionally lapsing into too-explanatory prose, and it is full of elaborate narrative intercutting which is so brilliantly done that it looks easy, story piled upon story, times entangled in each other, without any loss of clarity, or narrative drive. But the epilogue makes everything tidy, as if Vargas Llosa thought his readers couldn’t bear too much mystery or unhappiness, and as if horror could only be swallowed with a little coating of romance. This is to betray the best intuitions in the book, which make the Andes themselves, finally, a mystery not to be penetrated or worshiped but to be contemplated, a mark of where the understanding ends. The rainbow in the following passage is a little over-produced, but the rest manages to be both precise and elusive.

The rain came to an abrupt stop, and immediately the world was filled with bright afternoon sunlight. Lituma could see a rainbow crowning the hills around the camp, hovering over the eucalyptus grove. The ground, covered with puddles and gleaming rivulets, looked like quicksilver. And on the horizon, along the Cordillera where rock and sky met, there was that strange color, somewhere between violet and purple, which he had seen reproduced on so many Indian skirts and shawls and on the woolen bags the campesinos hung from the ears of their llamas; for him it was the color of the Andes….

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