Death in the Andes, written by celebrated Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, is on its surface a “whodunit,” set in the dark period when the Shining Path revolutionary terrorists (Sendero Luminoso terrucos) were conducting their campaign of terror in the remote mountain communities of the Peruvian highlands. One more horror in a place rife with rumors of flesh-harvesting pishtacos (evil monster-like men) and with hardship, suspicion, and mistrust—where even the landscape itself is out to destroy those who dare to trespass. Corporal Litumo and his adjunct Tomás Carreño are assigned to the dusty mining and road-building camp of Naccos, charged with discovering the common fate of three missing men. Little ties these three victims together: one was a nearby town administrator now hiding from the terrucos, one a simple mute young man who spends his days on the hillsides with his beloved vicuñas, and the third an albino who commands fear and respect by nurturing the superstitions surrounding his differentness. The indigenous workers of Naccos are suspicious of the two authorities and tight-lipped about the disappearances. So, the two men make little progress, passing the drudgery with Tomás’ stories to Litumo about his ill-fated, lopsided romance with the beautiful Mercedes, a woman who ultimately vanished when Tomás entrusted her with a purse of his life savings. The only other diversion for Corporal Litumo and Tomás is found in the seedy cantina run by the shadowy Dionysio and his wife Adriana, whom we gradually come to realize are much more than they seem.
Llosa embellishes his primary narrative with grim stories of various people’s encounters with the terrucos, and fates at the hands of them. And the ultimate resolution of the central mystery is profoundly disturbing. There are few innocents in this novel, and innocents are marked for death.
It is a dreary, unhappy Peruvian highlands that Mario Vargas Llosa paints for us. But that does not mean that Death in the Andes is not a worthwhile read. Llosa wrote Death in the Andes almost 30 years ago in the early 90s, near the time of the worst of the Shining Path conflict in Peru. His protagonist, Litumo, is at least in part cast from his own experiences. Both spent part of their childhood in the colonial culture, comforts, and beauty of the coastal city of Piura. Llosa himself was part of a government investigative team tasked with discovering the truth of Shining-Path-related killings of a group of journalists in 1983. It seems that Llosa writes of the place as he himself experienced it. I don’t enjoy his view of Peru; I have my doubts about its authenticity and completeness. But I add it as one more piece in the mosaic of my own understanding of this place. Mario Vargas Llosa is too influential a figure in Peruvian civics and culture to ignore.
But I find myself hungry for other tales of the Peruvian Andes, especially for stories told by Quechua authors, to deepen my understanding of this complex land. Stories with Quechua protagonists and an unabashedly Quechua perspective on their own world. Meaty tales which delve beyond the touristy surface (or coastal/colonial characterizations).