Ancient Sorceries and Modern Mysteries
By Marie Arana-Ward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 1996
LITTLE WONDER that the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa is called one of the masters of the 20th century novel: His moral vision is unique among American contemporaries, North and South. The subject emerging on his pages time and again, whatever the disguise, is the ancient cultural collision that spawned this turbulent hemisphere and the myriad ways its shock waves still define us.
However confidently his publisher may call Death in the Andes a detective novel, and however much others may fall for the whodunit posed in its opening lines, this is no mystery novel. This is well-knit social criticism as trenchant as any by Balzac or Flaubert--an ingenious patchwork of the conflicting mythologies that haved shaped the New World psyche since the big bang of Columbus's first step on shore. In short, this is a novel that plumbs the heart of the Americas.
At its center is Cpl. Lituma, a civil guard whose name first appeared in Vargas Llosa's The Green House (1966) and then reappeared almost 20 years later in Who Killed Palomino Montero? On the face of it, Death in the Andes chronicles an investigation undertaken by Lituma and his adjutant, Tomasito Carreno, who are assigned to a godforsaken outpost in the mountains of Peru to try to resolve the disappearances and presumed murders of three men: one, the landed lieutenant governor of Andamarca; another, the retarded Indian caretaker of a vicuna herd in the tourist haven of Pampas Galeras; and the third, a disenfranchised albino.
At first we are led to believe that they all may have been victims of Shining Path terrorists, young Indian communists who have slashed their way through the country, slaughtering anyone they suspect has a tie with Peru's white establishment or a penchant for the old, decadent ways. But soon enough, other suspects emerge: Dionisio, the wild-eyed bartender of the local bar, and his wife, Dona Adriana, a stony-faced "witch" who is rumored to practice pre-Incan rituals of cannibalism and human sacrifice; and, as frightening, pishtacos, half-gringo ghouls who are said to live in caves, lurk along the highways, and suck the fat out of anyone foolish enough to travel the Andean roads at night. Pishtacos "needed human fat to make church bells sing more sweetly and tractors run more smoothly, and now, lately, to give the government to pay off the foreign debt ... They not only slit their victims' throats but butchered them like cattle, or sheep, or hogs, and ate them. Bled them drop by drop and got drunk on the blood."
Lituma's investigation takes on a dizzying, surrealistic turn. Sitting in his makeshift hut, with no one to confide in but Tomasito, his boyish adjutant, it seems only a matter of time before either the huaycos--massive landslides of rock and mud--or terrorists, or pishtacos descend on him to have their way. Vulnerable, perplexed, lonely, he lies in his cot night after night listening to Tomasito's endless and anguished tale of love--of the beautiful prostitute who first unwittingly inspires Tomasito to kill her thug lover, and who then makes off with the young man's money and heart.
Clinging to this sensual, provocative tale as a condemned man might hang on to every word of a priest's final unction, Lituma lives from day to day only, with all the cursed mosaic of Peru confounding his investigation. He may command a torrent of macho profanities, but Vargas Llosa's testy protagonist is also remarkably tender, love-starved and not a little afraid. Bit by bit, and with the help of history, he comes closer to understanding the terrible truth of each man's fate.
As in his previous novels (The Time of the Hero, Conversations in the Cathedral, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and The War of the End of the World), but most notably as in The Green House, Vargas Llosa's themes are anything but timid: Here is the tenuous thread between civilization and barbarity; the all-too-easy slide from dark imagination to brute reality. And, as usual, he conflates time, slipping from one conversation to another, from last year to this, as if to remind us that there is no escaping history, no bargaining with a future that does not pay its debts to the hungry ghosts of the past.
But as brilliant as this novel is in Vargas Llosa's original, Edith Grossman's translation falls short. Flatfooted where Vargas Llosa's language is vibrant, Grossman's English stunts the book. "Como en todo el mundo se chupa," says the wicked bartender in lively Peruvian slang, "siempre encontrara chamba." ("With people sucking booze the world over, there will always be someone to hustle.") But in Grossman's lingo, it's "People drink everywhere, so you can always make a living." Or this: "Medio panico, medio cerval a los terrucos." ("Half panicked, half in thrall of the terrucos.") But Grossman puts it this way: "A panicked, raw fear of the terrucos." Not just badly done--wrong. As unfortunate for us as it is for Vargas Llosa, the English version of Death in the Andes is littered with such examples.
But somehow the story shines through. Enough, anyway, to make us realize how lucky we are to have Vargas Llosa writing novels again. After a failed tilt at the Peruvian presidency (he lost to Alberto Fujimori in a landslide election in 1990), a schizoidal and defensive autobiography, Fish in Water (1995), and a grandiosely self-imposed exile in London, Death in the Andes is proof that Vargas Llosa's true power lies not in his political life but in his prose. The book is also evidence that the violent past that haunts the hemisphere still lingers starkly in Peru. It is a legacy Vargas Llosa has always seen clearly.
As one of his characters asks a historian midway through the novel, "What is it about Peru that stirs such passion?"
"It is a country nobody can understand," the scholar replies, "And nothing is more attractive ... than an indecipherable mystery."
Marie Arana-Ward is deputy editor of Book World.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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