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Monday, 17 February 2014

Death in the Andes - Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman)

As part of my World Heritage Listed sites Literature Challenge the month of February saw me travelling (via non fiction) to Peru. Where else to chose your writer than from the Nobel Prize in Literature which Mario Vargas Llosa won in 2010. His citation for the award reads: "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat"

“Death in the Andes” was written in 1993 and follows a character (Lituma) from his 1987 work “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” Lituma is a civil guard and has been sent, in disgrace, to the town of Naccos. The majority of the inhabitants of this rural shanty town are building a highway. Each night Lituma tells his story to his superior, Tomasito, his tale of meeting and falling for a prostitute Mercedes, the reason why he is in disgrace. The nightly tales detail Lituma and Mercedes life on the run from the mob.

Add to this mix an albino travelling merchant who is searching for his only true love, a mute who lived in the hills with a herd and is at peace with nature and a Government official hiding under a false name from the rebels. All three of these men disappear from the village and the suspicion immediately lands on Dionisio, a past travelling carnival leader, and his wife Adriana, a suspected witch, who run the local cantina.

This is a novel of fine character portraits:

From the time he was a boy, they had called Pedrito Tinoco half-wit, moron, dummy, simpleton, and since his mouth always hung open, they called him flycatcher too. The names did not make him angry, because he never got angry at anything or anyone. And the people of Abancay never got angry with him either; sooner or later everybody was won over by his peaceful smile, his obliging nature, his simplicity.

The mystery of the missing men is the main plot of the novel with the love story told at night being the sub-plot. But within the whole mix we have tales of witchery, sorcery, spells, ancient Aztec rituals, the history of Peru and the Andes. Small snippets of the rebels appearing and killing innocents throughout the region, also crop up, adding a further tension to the citizens of Naccos.

‘The ancestral gods, the tutelary spirits of the hills and mountains in the Cordillera,’ replied the professor, delighted to speak about the thing he seemed to love best. ‘Evert peak in the Andes no matter how small, has its own protective god. When the Spaniards came and destroyed the idols and the burial grounds and baptized the Indians and prohibited pagan cults, the thought they had put an end to Idolatry. But in fact it still lives, mixed in with Christian ritual. The apus decide life and death in these regions. They’re the reason we’re here now, my friends. Let’s drink to the apus of La Esperanza!’

This is a novel filled with Peruvian ritual and beliefs and it gave me an amazing insight into a Nation I know little about. How a nation can be politically, dogmatically, racially and culturally be divided. Apus, the gods of the mountains, and the evil Pishtacos, the vampires of Andean folklore rule the mountains, they are the ones who take your children, your partners, they are the ones who cause earthquakes and avalanches, they are the ones who have taken the three missing men. This is a portrait of a nation on the brink, of revolutionary change, of extreme economic hardship.

Only decay, what we have nowadays, is given away for nothing. You men don’t have to pay anybody anything to live in uncertainty and fear, to be the wrecks you are. That’s free of charge. Work on the highway will stop and you won’t have jobs, the terrucos will come and there’ll be a slaughter, the huayco will come down and wipe us off the map. The evil spirits will come out of the mountains to celebrate, they’ll dance a farewell cacharpari to life, and so many condors will be circling overhead they’ll blot out the sky. Unless…

As you can see from the few excerpts above the book is littered with Peruvian slang and terms that I was not familiar with, however it didn’t take me very long to get used to it and understand quite a number of the references. One thing I did find slightly distracting was the night time discussions where Lituma was telling his story, including his conversations with Mercedes, only to be interrupted by Tomasito urging him on for more details. This did confuse me at times.

For me this was a great introduction to Peru’s history and cultures as well as the pagan beliefs and given the theme of my Literature Challenge was to learn more about the nations that feature a UNESCO World Heritage Listed Park, it has succeeded on a number of levels.

I’ll be back with a review of Daniel Alarcon’s “War By Candlelight” later this week, a collection of short stories by a young Peruvian writer.

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