The bloodthirsty practices of remote mountain peoples seems to be the theme for this week, with Mario Vargas Llosa’s disturbing unravelling of a series of mysterious deaths around a lonely hill station following hard on the heels of Ismail Kadare’s portrait of blood feuds on Albania’s high plateau.
Menace is threaded into the very fibres of this book, which follows Corporal Lituma, a civil guard who features in several of Vargas Llosa’s novels, as he and his junior officer investigate three disappearances in the mining community around their post.
Yet, despite what its title may suggest, Death in the Andes is no mere whodunnit. Instead, as he conjures up the boredom and terror of the two men cooped up in their shack as terrorist bands and stories of vengeful mountain spirits run riot through the hills, Llosa lays bare the strings that link modern violence and ancient barbarism, and run through the heart of humankind.
This is a novel where long stretches of apprehension are punctuated with bursts of vicious action. Like Kadare, Vargas Llosa delights in testing outsiders against the world he has created, smashing their value systems, assumptions and even their bodies against the hard rock of experience that awaits them among the peaks. We watch tourists’ faith in their papers shrivel in the face of revolutionary zeal and an academic’s confidence in the immunity of her ecology project from the squalls of violence that pelt the region battered to smithereens.
Occasionally Vargas Llosa packs a little too much foreboding into the run up to these naive forays into the savage mountain world. By the middle of the book you can be pretty much certain that anyone who says they’ll be back soon is gone for good. Nevertheless Vargas Llosa’s masterful grasp of the minute-by-minute shifting motivations that govern our actions and the wild beauty of the imagery with which he bodies forth the hill country usually sublimates this weakness into a strength.
Kadare isn’t the only writer to echo in the novel. There is Hemingway in the story of the townsfolk driven to massacre their peers in a heady parody of justice (which recalls Pilar’s story about Avila in For Whom the Bell Tolls), while Martin Kohan’s technique of overlaying one story with another finds its answer in the way Vargas Llosa’s characters switch between memory and the present moment, often from one sentence to another. And, in the suspiciously named Dionisio, who, with his wife Dona Adriana, goads the miners into gross excesses and revels that strip them of their humanity, Euripides’ The Bacchae glimmers through.
The compelling throughline of the story and the humour that flares up to catch you at unexpected points along the way, however, are all Vargas Llosa’s own. An engrossing and memorable — doubtless I’ll be back for more.
Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman). Publisher (this edition): Faber & Faber (1996)