“Great troubles need great remedies. That’s the history of man” (235).
Death in the Andes is a stylistic treat that blends mystery with both the supernatural and the political all with a love story serving as a point of reference to the fantastical and violent activities depicted. For the first 30 or so pages I found it slow to start, not due to boredom or pace, but rather due to the uniquely interweaving narrative progression employed by Vargas Llosa that was a bit confusing to swallow, but once I caught wind of the author’s methods I found Death in the Andes a captivating read.
The book is told primarily from the perspective of corporal Lituma who has been stationed in the remote Andean town of Naccos to investigate the disappearance of three men. The disappearance of these three men pales in significance when presented alongside the ongoing violent actions of a growing guerilla presence called the Shining Path that aims to excise foreign influence from the Andean culture. Lituma is from the coastal Peruvian capital of Lima and the customs, language, and beliefs of the Andean people are foreign to him, making him susceptible to the guerilla forces and ill at ease with his place among the Andea villagers. He suspects the guerrilla presence as the cause for the disappearance of the men, but as he investigates further he discovers a world that is balanced by acts of witchcraft, sacrifice, and worship of the gods of the earth. Vargas Llosa portrays Lituma’s discomfort with his station within the mind of the reader through a cryptic narrative style that weaves back and forth in time and in many instances has characters in the present speaking about activities occurring in the past without clear indication of what point in the time the speaker is speaking from.
“Knowing how to read and write, wearing a tie and a jacket, finishing school, living in the city – it’s not enough anymore. Only witches can understand what is going on.” (162)
As Lituma attempts to understand the Andean customs and get to the root of the men’s disappearances, he finds comfort and distraction in the obsessive and naïve love story recounted by his deputy Tomás. Tomás had fallen in love with a whore named Mercedes who failed to love him back. The actions that Tomás chose to pursue prompted his assignment in the remote and difficult village of Naccos with Lituma. The story of Tomás and Mercedes serves as a backdrop of romantic escape from the bizarre and terrifying world that Lituma must investigate, however, in the end the romantic proves to blend into the fantastic in a satisfying ending to this fantastic book.
Throughout my reading I found myself nostalgic for a three week trip I spent exploring the Peru and Bolivian Andes in early 2010. Much of the political turmoil that was the violent backdrop to Vargas Llosa’s novel has settled in the 15 years since its release, but the unique customs of the Andean people pursue to this day. The Andes are a rural and mountainous land with a rich history from pre-Columbian times that continues to thrive despite the influence of modernity, tourism, and capitalism. It is a place of extreme elements with thin air, freezing temperatures, and peopled by a hardy class that will persevere with their customs through the changing times. Ultimately, this is the theme of Death in the Andes, the deaths of the individuals are only symbols of the death of an external influence on this remote and vibrant land.