Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-) is very skilled at mixing together narrative lines (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, for instance) and one of the most celebrated writers in Spanish (winner of the Cervantes Prize in 1995, a year after being elected to the Real Academia Espa±ola (Spanish Royal Academy) and the 2010 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). Including Death in the Andes, I have read ten of his first thirteen books (all six of the first six). Vargas was almost as prolific as Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates (however, since 1988, he has published “only” five books). I have no qualms about saying that he is not as good a mystery writer as he is a writer of erotic comedies (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service is my favorite; it was made into a tamer but still funny movie; I also loved Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter which was made into an American movie titled “Tune in Tomorrow”).
Book One of Death in the Andes (Lituma* en los Andes was the original Spanish title) is an absorbing tale of Sendero Luminosa (Shining Path, the Maoist guerillas in Perº during the 1980s) social “cleansing” (beating the brains out of “deviants” and priests and government officials and foreign researchers and…), two Guardia Civil (the low-paid national policemen), Corporal Lituma (from the northern coastal city of Piura,* familiar with the Green House bordello of Vargas’s 1965 novel of that name) and the native serrano Tom¡s Carre±o holding down an outpost high in the Andes, in a village called Naccos. (A serrano is man from the Andes, though Tom¡s had been stationed in Lima and his patron who might be Tom¡s’s biological father is also in Lima.)
While waiting to be overrun by the ruthless rebels, Cpl. Lituma listens to the his subordinate’s story. Tom¡s was working as a bodyguard for a drug lord who liked it rough ‘” or at least simulated beating up prostitutes. Tom¡s became so outraged by what he was hearing that he burst in and gunned down the man he was supposed to be guarding. Mercedes, the woman was outraged at Tom¡s’s interferences, especially since she had not been paid yet.
Tom¡s, still a virgin at the age of 23, fell in love with Mercedes. Their flight together had its adventures. Through a succession of cold Andean night, Lituma is entranced with Tom¡s’s story, which provides many occasions for the older man to tell the younger one what an idiot he was (and is, being still entirely besotted by the love of his life).
Lituma is trying to solve the mystery of three local disappearances, one of them a mute (Pedro Tinoco,) who had been a sort of servant of Tom¡s and Lituma and who disappeared on an errand to get beer for them. (There is a horror-filled backstory for this character.) Vargas introduces and kills off a number of characters executed by the Sendero Luminosa, including the account of a town, Andamarca, which sentenced its elite to death (while the highest official was hiding in a grave).
Lituma wonders why the particular three were disappeared (not by the government of which he and Tom¡s are the local representatives) rather than the witch (or at least fortune-teller) Adriana and her nihilistic husband Dionisio, who fit the profile of Sendero Luminosa targets even more than he himself does.
Through Part One of the book (more than half of its length) there is the threat of a Sendero Luminoso visit and rumblings of very primitive beliefs about the bloodthirst of the spirits of the mountains. In Part Two, a Danish anthropologist tells Lituma about some of the human sacrifices of pre-Inca cultures in the Andes and there are only rumbles of Sendero Luminoso bloodlettings.
The story of Tom¡s and Mercedes continues, but I found Part One of the book more absorbing than Part Two. Vargas Llosa does not seem very interested in the “whodunit?” aspect (here or in Who Killed Palomino Molero?, though the whodunit question is titular there) and even the “why was it done?” aspect is handled perfunctorily.
The reader learns quite a lot about the connections to The Dark Side of Adriana and Dionisio along with hearing the romance of the total devotion of Tom¡s to Mercedes, but not very much about Lituma, who at least in Spanish is the title character. He is entranced by Tom¡s’s tale and appalled by both the ancient ways and the Maoist ones of the Sendero Luminoso, but other than feeling nostalgia for Piura (and coastal climate and culture in preference to the altiplano climate and culture, both of which are repugnant to him) and pisco (Peruvian brandy) from the Ica Valley, the reader learns practically nothing about him.
Reading Death in the Andes provides more than glimmers of the writer whose works I once lapped up and also of the novels that made me lose interest in Vargas Llosa (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and Who Killed Palomino Molero?). I think that Mario Vargas Llosa has considerable novelistic skills, but lost something of the motivation to write fiction along the way. It’s not that he had nothing more to say. If anything Death in the Andes is crammed with too many mythologies and topics/concerns. The erotic comedy in Death in the Andes is entertaining, the primitivism presented so portentously is not entertaining. It is not credible to me, but something brooding in the coca-numbed serranos is not wholly incredible to me, either. (And there are some similarly horrifying “traditional” customs mixed with the violence of the Peruvian civil war of the 1980s in Daniel Alarc³n’s recent Lost City Radio, so I may be not just wrong, but a Pollyanna in wanting to reject the primal bloothirstiness ‘” and callousness of armed young adolescents ‘” that also pops up in the West Africa of Allah Is Not Obliged and in the horrors wrought in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, in China, in Burma by the ethnically Burmen junta, by the Red Guards in the Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and in the breakup of Yugoslavia… or I just don’t want to think about the horrifying carnage of modern civil wars, though I think I do so more than most Americans.)
Loose ends are tied up skillfully in an epilogue. The book is not a “downer” anywhere close to the extent that Vargas’s apocalyptic The War of the End of the World was. I think that it qualifies as a “page-turner” and includes some harrowing set pieces.
* After writng this I read in Vargas Llosa’s A Writer’s Reality that “the year  I spent in Piura, as a nine-year-old boy was decisive for me” and that he returned for another year in 1952. The essay on The Green House also recalled that that (1966) novel included a Piura-native Guardia Civil sergeant named Lituma who had returned to Piura from posting elsewhere. Lituma is also the assistant to the lieutenant investigating Who Killed Palomino Molero? Perhaps readers with better memories of The Green House and Who Killed Palomino Molero? than mine recognized a version of the same character in the title “Lituma in the Andes” ‘” which does not otherwise seem a particularly good title. I think that dropping him the English titles should have been Deaths in the Andes.